– Washington Post –
On Saturday, the first day of the federal government shutdown, Vice President Pence arrived here in the late afternoon to meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, whom he praised and repeatedly called a “friend” of the United States.
The leaders met for nearly 2½ hours at the presidential palace and delivered brief statements before a small group of reporters who are traveling with Pence — a nearly nine-minute event that only happened after intense negotiation between Pence’s staff and Egyptian authorities, who wanted to limit access to one television camera with limited sound and, at one point, physically barred reporters from leaving a bus.
Sitting in gold-gilded chairs in front of an intricate tapestry showing a map of Egypt, Sissi said through an interpreter that Pence is a “dear guest” and that his visit “speaks volumes” about Egypt’s relationship with the Trump administration. Pence said that the two countries had been “drifting apart” until Trump took office but that their “ties have never been stronger,” especially as they work together to fight terrorism in the region. He added that he chose to visit Egypt first on his four-day, three-country Middle East tour because of the importance of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship.
Pence denounced a terrorist attack on an Egyptian mosque in November that killed more than 300, along with recent attacks on Coptic Christians.
Neither leader mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or President Trump’s decision late last year to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a move that Sissi advised against. Neither answered shouted questions from reporters. In his brief remarks, Pence made no mention of the U.S. citizens who are imprisoned in Egypt, often on questionable charges. Sissi’s regime has been accused of gross human rights violations and stifling the press.
Pence arrived at the presidential palace late Saturday afternoon, along with a bus carrying the 12 reporters who are traveling with him in the Middle East this week. A CNN journalist with a video camera left the bus, but then an Egyptian official planted himself in front of the door and would not allow anyone else to leave. One of Pence’s staff members firmly told the man that he needed to let everyone out, but he refused to move, forcing her to shout out the windows to others who might be able to help.
After about three minutes, reporters were allowed off the bus but not into the meeting between Pence and Sissi. They were not allowed to take cellphones, cameras or laptops into the palace and spent about 90 minutes waiting in a room down the hall from where Pence and Sissi were meeting. In the hall outside, there were tense negotiations over which reporters would eventually be allowed into the meeting for the brief statements.
After two meetings, the two leaders and their top aides had dinner together. The visit lasted less than four hours. The vice president is scheduled to fly from Cairo to Amman, Jordan, on Saturday night.
This trip is happening despite the federal government shutdown in the United States. Pence’s press secretary, Alyssa Farah, said Friday that the “vice president’s meetings with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Israel are integral to America’s national security and diplomatic objectives.”
Air Force Two was over the Atlantic Ocean when news came that Congress had not reached agreement on a spending deal and that the government would immediately shut down. Pence received the news from his chief of staff, Nick Ayers, who then briefed reporters on the plane and distributed a written statement from the vice president.
About three hours later, the plane stopped to refuel at Ireland’s Shannon Airport. Pence and his wife, Karen Pence, spent about 20 minutes in the terminal talking with dozens of young members of the Air Force who were headed to Kuwait, many for their first deployment. The couple spent most of the time posing for photos, shaking hands and thanking the troops for their service — but the shutdown also came up, as service members and other federal employees will not receive their paychecks until the shutdown ends.
“We’ll get this thing figured out in Washington,” Pence said after one group photo. “You guys stay focused on your mission.”
Photo: Vice President Pence, center left, and his delegation meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, center right, and his delegation at the presidential palace in Cairo on Jan. 20. (Khaled Desouki/pool via AP)