|Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the presidential palace in Cairo. - Reuters|
CAIRO -- Friendly phone calls, an invite to the White House, a focus on Islamic militancy and what Donald Trump called "chemistry" have set the tone for a new era of warmer U.S.-Egyptian ties that could herald more military and political support for Cairo.
The mutual admiration dates back to a U.N. meeting in September, when then-presidential candidate Trump found common ground with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's hard line on extremism. Trump described the ex-general, who rights groups criticize as authoritarian and repressive, as a "fantastic guy".
Sisi, the first foreign leader to congratulate Trump on his election victory, returned the favor last month after the newly inaugurated president barred citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S.
Egypt, not on the list, refrained from speaking out against the ban on behalf of Muslim countries that often look to it for leadership. That silence spoke volumes about the changing tone of its relationship with the United States.
For Trump, Sisi appeals as an uncompromising leader who came to power by overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood and is fighting ISIS in northern Sinai and on his border with Libya.
For Sisi, Trump appeals as a U.S. leader who unlike Barack Obama is not interested in berating an old ally on human rights.
"The rhetoric alone of this Trump administration is much more forward leaning in its support towards Sisi than Obama," said one U.S. official, who declined to be named. "I expect it to be a much closer relationship."
Egypt is one of Washington's closest Middle East allies, and U.S. military aid has long cemented its historic 1979 peace deal with Israel. Home to the Suez Canal, one of the world's busiest waterways, the stability of the Arab world's most populous state is a U.S. priority, but the strategic relationship hit a low under Obama who briefly froze aid after Sisi overthrew an elected president.
In contrast, weeks into Trump's presidency, the White House has already discussed declaring the Brotherhood a terrorist group - sure to be welcomed by Sisi, who was condemned by Obama for his crackdown on Egypt's oldest Islamist group.
Egyptian and U.S. officials say the Trump administration will likely seek to lift or ease conditions imposed under Obama on the payment of $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid a year.
Officials and analysts do not expect a major jump in the size of U.S. military aid overnight, but describe a relationship that is more aligned and mutually supportive.
"During the Obama's administration there were difficulties," said an Egyptian government official, who declined to be named.
"When the administrations have common goals it makes cooperation easier. The military is the backbone of the relationship. We have a common enemy, which is terrorism."