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Trump Welcomes Egypt's President To White House Amid Worry From Human Rights Groups

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

At the White House today, President Trump hosted his Egyptian counterpart, and the two addressed each other like old friends. That worries human rights groups. The Egyptian government has jailed tens of thousands of people as it cracks down on political activity, and it is trying to tighten state control even further. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Describing President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as my friend, President Trump said the two are working well together and making progress on counterterrorism efforts and on trade.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We've never had a better relationship, Egypt and the United States, than we do right now.

KELEMEN: Egypt has been a key regional ally to the U.S. for decades. President Sissi has become especially close with Trump, touting that relationship as he spoke through an interpreter in the Oval Office.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI: (Through interpreter) All of the credit goes to you, Mr. President. Thank you very much for your support on all fronts. This is what we're seeking to promote our bilateral relations in various fields - political, economic, military, cultural and others.

KELEMEN: The visit comes as Egyptians prepare to vote later this month on constitutional amendments that would give Sissi even broader powers and allow him to stay in power until 2034. President Trump was asked about that effort as his aides tried to get reporters out of the room.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Guys, we got to keep moving.

TRUMP: I think he's doing a great job.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Half the room is out.

TRUMP: I don't know about the effort. I could just tell you he's doing a great job.

KELEMEN: Trump ignored a shouted question about Egypt's potential purchase of new Russian fighter jets. An activist with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, Mai El-Sadany, says by hosting Sissi at this moment, the administration is sending a signal that Egypt is a stable partner no matter what it does.

MAI EL-SADANY: And that no matter what you do is a very dangerous message to send, both to Egyptians inside the country who still believe in preserving democratic values and principles and to other - to the region - other autocrats who are watching.

KELEMEN: She says the Egyptian government has done a good job at saying the things the U.S. wants to hear. Sissi presents himself as someone who protects Christians and other minorities and promotes women's rights. Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace disputes that.

MICHELE DUNNE: But I think there are those in the Trump administration - I mean, Ivanka Trump tweeted about this recently - who accept that, who believe that he is doing great things for women and for Christians inside of Egypt.

KELEMEN: Dunne doesn't see Trump pressing Egypt on human rights, though members of Congress are speaking out. Seventeen senators this week accused Egypt of unjustly detaining at least a dozen Americans, noting that the country receives $1.3 billion a year from the U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy on the Appropriations Committee is threatening to hold up the sale of new Apache helicopters until Egypt compensates an American who was badly injured in Egypt when the military mistakenly fired on her tourist group. Administration officials say they have raised that case with the Egyptians and are seeking the release of Americans detained in Egypt. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.