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In Departure From Obama Strategy, Mattis Prioritizes Military Cooperation On Egypt Trip


Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is touring the Middle East this week. He is the first member of the Trump Cabinet to visit Egypt, which he just left. And his message on this trip is one of military cooperation in the fight against terrorism and the need to counter Iran. That's a change in tone from the Obama administration.

We're joined now by NPR's Jane Arraf in Cairo. And Jane, whom did Mattis talk with in Egypt, and what did they talk about?

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Well, Robert, he met Egypt's defense minister of course. But the big deal was he met President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. So Mattis and Sissi, who is also, by the way, a former general, have met before at the Pentagon. But as you mentioned, this is the first visit by a Trump cabinet member to Egypt. And here's a little bit of what Mattis said after the meeting.


JIM MATTIS: I left Cairo very confident, very confident in the avenues we have to advance our military-to-military relationship which has been a bedrock and has stood solid all these years.

ARRAF: So Egypt of course is loving this. It's placed a lot of hopes on the new administration. President Obama had frozen some of the $1.3 billion a year the U.S. gives Egypt in military aid. That's after Sissi came to power after a military coup. And Sissi is very much hoping for a new relationship. And according to Mattis, as we've heard, the U.S. wants that as well.

SIEGEL: Now, Mattis arrived just a few weeks after Egypt declared a state of emergency. What was that about?

ARRAF: Well, Egypt is fighting an affiliate of the Islamic State in North Sinai province, and those attacks have widened. The president here declared a state of emergency countrywide after the suicide bombings of churches in Alexandria and near Cairo. And then just this week, there was an attack in the South Sinai near the tourist site of St. Catherine's Monastery.

So Mattis said he recognized that Egypt was trying hard to counter these attacks. The security measures that Egypt has imposed increase security across the country, and they also give the police and the courts even more powers than they already had.

SIEGEL: Now, even before the state of emergency was declared, there's been a lot of criticism of Egypt's human rights record. Has the Trump administration remained silent on that?

ARRAF: Well, that's another difference between the Trump and the Obama administrations because Trump has made clear that when he has criticisms, he'll make them in private. And public or private, U.S. pressure is credited with winning the release of an Egyptian-American woman from Virginia. She had founded a charity for street kids and had been held for almost three years. Egypt couldn't prove any of the charges against her, ended up dropping them and finally released her this week.

You might wonder what children's charities have to do with security, but the government here believes that other countries are working to destabilize Egypt, and it's suspicious of any organizations that aren't controlled by the government, particularly those that receive foreign funding.

SIEGEL: Now, earlier, Mattis was in Saudi Arabia where we know he talked about Iran. How do you think that'll play in the region?

ARRAF: Well, Iran is on everyone's minds even if Mattis isn't about to go there. And part of it is because Mattis has been going to Sunni Arab countries. And most of the countries in this region are Sunni. They believe President Obama was too soft on Iran, which is the major Shia power. So when Mattis said at the start of the trip that Iran was the center of the conflicts in the region, it really was music to the ears of a lot of the leaders here.

We have to remember that most of those conflicts right now - Yemen and Syria included - are on some level proxy wars. They're a struggle for dominance between Iran and its allies and Saudi Arabia and its partners. It is obviously a very complicated region. The Obama administration was wary of wading in too deep. But Mattis, as we've seen, is plunging in.

SIEGEL: And he's now in Israel where obviously they'll talk more about Iran. NPR's Jane Arraf in Cairo, thanks.

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

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