Pompeo in Egypt amid concerns over US Mideast policy

Secretary of state on nine-nation tour in bid to reassure Arab allies that Trump will not abandon the region or relent pressure on Iran

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo on January 10, 2019. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / POOL / AFP)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo on January 10, 2019. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / POOL / AFP)

CAIRO (AP) — US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held talks with Egyptian leaders in Cairo on Thursday as he continued a nine-nation Mideast tour aimed at reassuring America’s Arab partners that the Trump administration is not walking away from the region and is continuing to step up pressure on Iran.

Amid confusion and concern over plans to withdraw US forces from Syria, Pompeo met with Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry to discuss security and economic cooperation. He was later to deliver a speech on the administration’s broader Mideast objectives focused on combating threats from Iran.

Pompeo said on Twitter that his meeting with Sissi had been “productive.” He added that “the US stands firmly with Egypt in its commitments to protecting religious freedom and in the fight against terrorism that threatens all of our friends in the Middle East.”

US President Donald Trump has boasted of his close relationship with Sissi, a former general who has been criticized for his human rights record and democratic shortcomings. The Trump administration has resumed weapons sales to Egypt that had been suspended over human rights concerns, including the jailing of several American citizens on what US officials say are false charges.

Shortly before Pompeo got to Cairo, the State Department put out a fact sheet detailing close US cooperation with Egypt that noted some improvements in the country’s human rights record. It said Washington welcomed the recent acquittal of employees of American civil society groups who had been “wrongly convicted of improperly operating in Egypt” and said the US supports Sissi’s pledges “to amend Egyptian law to prevent future miscarriages of justice.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) meets with King Abdullah of Jordan (R) during his visit to Amman on January 8, 2019. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool/AFP)

On Wednesday, however, an Egyptian court sentenced a leading activist behind the country’s 2011 uprising to 15 years in prison after convicting him of taking part in clashes between protesters and security forces later that year.

The statement went on to laud Egypt for its “vital role” in regional security and stability and lauded Sissi for being “a steadfast partner in the anti-terror fight and a courageous voice in denouncing the radical Islamist ideology that fuels it.”

In his speech at the American University of Cairo entitled “A Force for Good: America’s Reinvigorated Role in the Middle East,” Pompeo was to extol the Trump administration’s actions in the region, including taking on the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria and imposing tough new sanctions on Iran.

“In just 24 months, the United States under President Trump has reasserted its traditional role as a force for good in this region, because we’ve learned from our mistakes,” he was to say, according to excerpts released by the State Department. “We have rediscovered our voice. We have rebuilt our relationships. We have rejected false overtures from enemies.”

Since withdrawing from the landmark 2015 nuclear deal with Iran last year, the administration has steadily ratcheted up pressure on Tehran and routinely accuses the nation of being the most destabilizing influence in the region. It has vowed to increase the pressure until Iran halts what US officials describe as its “malign activities” throughout the Mideast and elsewhere, including support for rebels in Yemen, anti-Israel groups and Syrian President Bashar Assad.

This Tuesday, March 7, 2017 frame grab from video shows US forces patrol on the outskirts of the Syrian town, Manbij, a flashpoint between Turkish troops and allied Syrian fighters and US-backed Kurdish fighters, in al-Asaliyah village, Aleppo province, Syria. (Arab 24 network, via AP, File)

“The nations of the Middle East will never enjoy security, achieve economic stability, or advance the dreams of its peoples if Iran’s revolutionary regime persists on its current course,” Pompeo was to say in his speech, according to the excerpts.

Pompeo arrived in Egypt after stops in Jordan and Iraq where he sought to assure leaders that withdrawing from Syria doesn’t mean the US is abandoning the fight against IS or easing pressure on Iran. From Egypt, Pompeo will travel to the Gulf Arab states of Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait to press the case.

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