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Pence Begins Mideast Tour In Cairo For Talks With Egypt's President


No matter if the United States government shuts down this weekend, Vice President Mike Pence will be at work - counts as an essential employee, you know. And he'll be in Cairo, the first stop on his trip to the Middle East. Pence will meet with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the general who's been running Egypt for a few years. NPR's Jane Arraf is in Cairo.

Hi, Jane.


INSKEEP: Well, now, what does the Trump administration think of this military-backed ruler?

ARRAF: Well, you'll remember they started off on a great footing. Trump thought that Sissi was just terrific, and Sissi was the first foreign leader to congratulate Trump. And here they thought all would be rosy. Now, their expectations have moderated a little bit, but what they still have in common is they see fighting what they call terrorism - fighting ISIS as a priority. Human rights, while important, definitely take a back seat. So it's an evolving relationship.

INSKEEP: Human rights take a back seat, you say. I guess we should remind people. Sissi is a coup leader. His military overturned an elected president. He's been ruling ever since. There have been many people in the opposition and NGOs and the media who've been arrested. Has the administration had nothing to say about that?

ARRAF: Well, what Sissi would say first - we do have to point out - he was, after being a coup leader, he was actually elected. Now, you can question whether those were free and fair elections - and probably not...


ARRAF: ...But he was an elected president - now running again.

But one of the things that has come back to haunt Egypt is basically the effect of the fact that it has all of those political prisoners in jail, that it's shut down aid organizations, including U.S. ones. And so all of this money it had been counting on, some of that has been held up by the administration, by Congress. That's one of the things they're going to be talking about because it has really turned into what officials here call a transactional relationship rather than a strategic relationship, and they think that's U.S. driven.

INSKEEP: Well, you mentioned Congress. I just did a little Google search here, and the two words I typed in were Rubio Egypt. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida is one of a number of senators who've highlighted Egypt's human rights record. And you get articles with names like "Rubio Statement on Egyptian President Enacting Repressive NGO Law," "Rubio, Cardin, Colleagues Urge Administration to Press the Egyptian Government," "Amendment on Aid to Egypt" - restricting that aid to Egypt. How worried are Egyptian authorities that this relationship could crack at some point?

ARRAF: You know, the bedrock of this relationship - we have to remember - is that Egypt signed a historic peace treaty with Israel. The U.S. has provided it with more than a billion dollars in military aid almost every year. And despite those possible cuts, it's not a relationship that's going to be dissolved. And at the end of the day, the president here believes that his friendship, the common goals, the common ties, will outweigh all of that.

INSKEEP: And there's a president of the United States who has de-emphasized human rights.

ARRAF: That is, we have to be honest, one of the things that they were relatively happy about here - not that they say that they don't care about human rights. But they say it's much more important to have security.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jane Arraf in Cairo, thanks very much.

ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.