THE LEVANT – Following is a transcript of The Associated Press’s interview with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
Q: What role will Egypt assume in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State group?
A: Let me assert here that we are fully committed to cooperate in counterterrorism in the region and not just when It comes to dealing with Daesh (the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. No, we are talking about full support by Egypt to a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy in the region and the entire world too. We don’t want to limit the confrontation to only military and security measures. I imagine that the comprehensive strategy we’re talking about — part of it would be the security and military confrontation, correct, but it would also include fighting poverty. Economic support for countries in the region is also important. We are also talking about improving education, which is important, as well as changes in the Islamic religious discourse. When all this is done, we will achieve decisive results in counterterrorism.
Q: Will airstrikes targeting the Islamic State group by the United States and others be enough to destroy the organization?
A: Most certainly, they will achieve results. Also, don’t forget that there are Iraqi forces on the ground. Iraq is not a lightweight state. Iraqi forces are capable of contributing in this matter. What is important is that there should be a suitable atmosphere in Iraq so this confrontation can succeed. It’s not a matter of ground troops from abroad or an issue of whether it requires that or not. What I am talking about here is that the size of the Iraqi forces, together with the efforts by the United States and others would be enough, or at least that is what I think.
It is important there should always be a dialogue and discussion so that things can move in their natural course for the confrontation we are talking about. Terrorism poses a danger to all nations in the region, without exception. To confront and counter it must be done by all with coordination.
Q: How long do you think it will take to defeat the Islamic State group? Or will it be an open-ended war?
A: It will take time. There is no doubt that counterterrorism takes time because it is not action against a regular army. As you can see their forces are deployed amid civilians. But as I did in the past let me assert again that we spoke about these dangers a long time ago and we warned against them and said that the presence in the region of foreign fighters is very dangerous. There are some fighters from European nations, British, German and French and from other countries. To gather them in an environment like this is extremely dangerous. Therefore, the challenge is to stop these fighters from reaching the region.
Q: There is a closer danger to home, Libya? Will you militarily intervene in Libya to protect Egypt?
A: We long ago pointed out the danger in Libya and we said the mission in Libya remains incomplete. Following the ouster of the regime (of Moammar Gadhafi in 2011), weapons should have been collected, the army and security agencies should have been rebuilt, and there should have been help in setting up a democratic system that satisfies all Libyans. That never happened.
We have a border with Libya that is 1,200-kilometers long and through which smuggling takes place. We are making an effort on our side in Egypt to stop that, whether it is the smuggling of weapons or fighters who could enter Egypt and carry out terrorist attacks as in the case of Farafrah (a western desert oasis where a deadly attack on Egyptian troops took place earlier this year). Our people died on two occasions in areas close to the Libyan border. So it is needed that we join forces to deal with what we are talking about here.
We and Algeria are keen to see Libya stabilized. The situation there poses a danger not just to us and Europeans, it requires a joint effort to restore stability in Libya. There is a parliament there which represents the will of the Libyan people. We support it and every member of the international community must support the legitimate authority in Libya now.
Q: Do see the threat of the Islamic State spreading to other parts of the Middle East? Will you get militarily involved in Libya or in the anti-Islamic State coalition?
A: Terrorism threatens us in Sinai as well. For more than a year now we have been making an effort to regain the initiative there. We intend to keep our efforts within our own borders. In cooperation with neighboring nations and the international community, we have made other successes inside Libya, political success. What we are trying to do now is to ensure that the Libyan parliament and the will of the Libyan people is respected.
Q: What support will Egypt give to the coalition against the Islamic State group? Access to airspace, logistical support?
A: We have said that we are completely committed to giving support. We will do whatever is required.
Q: Are there signs of Islamic State group operations in Sinai?
A: The elements in Sinai are jihadis with a radical ideology, including, for example, Ansar beit al-Maqdis (Champions of Jerusalem). We are efficiently confronting them in Sinai.
But I want to say that Daesh (the Islamic State group) is an ideology like any other radical ideology, no matter what the name is, like those here or in Nigeria, Mali or any other country. This ideology must be fought and requires a complete strategy to confront it. That will take time.
Q: Do you think the world has misunderstood you?
A: They needed to look closely at the will of the Egyptian people. Doing that would make a real contribution to the fight against terrorism.
We are talking here about a pivotal nation in the Middle East, a nation of 90 million people. Egyptians have fully understood that ideology and no longer support it. Not to say they supported it in the past. They were sympathetic to the idea of political Islam. That is what gave that movement (the Muslim Brotherhood) the opportunity to rule Egypt, let’s be honest here.
But after a year of that, Egyptians understood that the identity of the Egyptian state was about to be lost. It is the Egyptians who moved in their millions to regain the Egypt that once was. This is a matter of great importance, a very serious and strategic shift. We are talking about a nation of 90 million people who grasped that this kind of ideology cannot exist in Egypt. I excuse the world for not being able to (understand) — because it had to be followed very closely. Egypt would have been just like those countries that now suffer from large-scale violence and internal fighting and possibly civil war. This is a nation that has 90 million people, not 5 or 6 million like Libya. No, this is a very big nation. If this happened, if Egypt fell into civil war, it would be a problem for the entire region, the whole world and the Middle East.
Q: Have you pacified terrorism in Egypt?
A: We are making huge efforts and we are achieving successes. But that is not to say that we have realized our objectives to crush terrorism. I have already said that it is not just security, it is also an economic effort. It must be developed properly. Education needs to get the attention it deserves so the educational and cultural production in Egypt improves considerably. We will achieve that together. The religious discourse is also another field we can succeed at. That takes many years before we see results.
We are talking about a strategy that will not take a year, two or three. We don’t want to limit the confrontation. If you are talking about security breakthroughs, I have said we will have decisive success in a year or two. But for us to destroy the phenomenon itself and its root causes we are talking about the economy, ignorance within the education system and the religious discourse.
Q: Where is the region headed?
A: Honestly, more than a year ago, I warned that the region was heading to great danger from extremist thought. At the time the situation was not very clear, and it didn’t receive proper attention until the events in Iraq took place and the Islamic State swept over the Iraqi-Syrian borders and committed all these atrocities.
I repeatedly said the gathering of foreign fighters from across the world was extremely dangerous. Why? Because theoretical radical ideologies have been turned into a real practice. Those foreign fighters have gathered from across the world. It was no longer just a joint idea but rather joint action. Everyone who embraces a radical ideology in his home country is contained by security agencies there and prevented it from reaching a dangerous level like what we are seeing now. What happened in the last two years is that the ideology has turned into field action on the ground and those individuals from across the world gathered in the region and began their fight.
So, what will happen, besides what has happened in Iraq? Those individuals will return to their home countries — England, France, Egypt and any other country — and will talk and spread that ideology in their home countries. So, we will find that ideology present and ready for implementation in every country, including those that never had such an ideology. Then, we will see terrorism in the whole world, and the world will see no reprieve.
If we have a million Daesh, they will be a big problem not just in Iraq and Syria but in the entire region and even in Europe. That requires us to pay attention to any activity like that and truly confront it.
Q: What about your plans to change the religious discourse in Egypt?
A: There has been a strategic shift in Egyptians’ awareness. They are very, very alert to extremist ideology that is far from the moderation and tolerance of Islam. That has become very clear to Egyptians and, I think, to Muslims the world over. On this change, we are building a realistic opportunity to change religious discourse. Public opinion is ready for the sort of renewal we have in mind, rejecting terrorism and extremism and reviving the tolerance and moderation of the Muslim faith.
Al-Azhar and the Ministry of Islamic Endowments in Egypt have been making a huge effort in this regard but I must clearly say that this will not bring about a decisive result. This discourse will take many years to leave its mark on society, until you see practices that really reassure you that terrorism and extremism are far from society. It will take time, but what is encouraging is that this is what the Egyptians want now.
Q: You are leaving shortly for the United States to attend the U.N. General Assembly, are you meeting President Obama and what is your assessment of U.S.-Egyptian relations?
A: It is important to remember that Egypt has had a stable and strategic relationship with the United States for more than 30 years. We are keen on maintaining this relationship. Sometimes, this relationship is somewhat strained, but it continues to be a strategic relationship.
Q: Do you feel that the United States no longer enjoys much influence in the Middle East?
A: There is a saying I always repeat: Power means responsibility. The United States and the Europeans have great resources and have a responsibility toward the region. This must be always the case. The events that the region is going through confirm that.
Q: Some of your critics claim that your crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood has pushed many moderate Islamists into militancy. What do you think of their claim?
A: Let me be crystal clear here. First, the Muslim Brotherhood had the chance to rule Egypt without any form of violence. If you paid attention to what we said in the July 3 statement (which announced the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi), it gave a chance (for the Brotherhood) to participate and work together again.
I have always asked this question: Do they want to participate (in politics) or do they want confrontation? If they want to participate, the door is open, but if they want confrontation, that is dangerous for Egypt.
Unfortunately, they wanted a confrontation. That’s a problem. Participation is available to all who don’t resort to violence. Egypt is a state whose people and existing regime are very tolerant. (Egyptians) simply want to live, they don’t want conflict or violence. The opportunity to participate is there, but on condition there is no violence or strife and that they accept genuine democratic practices, transfer of power. All this does not exist in their discourse. They rise to power, true, but they never leave it, whether through the use of force or whatever.
That is what Egyptians came to understand, feared and rejected.
Q: Some of your critics at home and abroad claim that you are laying the foundation of a one-man populist regime, citing the protest law, monitoring of the Internet and the jailing of thousands. What can you offer Egyptians in the way of freedoms going forward?
A: We are seriously keen that there should be a genuine implementation of democracy and human rights. But it is very important that we realize that Egypt has 90 million people and the security and economic conditions in Egypt are very tough. Egyptians carried out two revolutions in less than four years and that exerts a massive effect on the general disposition of people, as well as on security and the economy. It takes time to get through that effect
If there is one in every thousand people is detained or arrested because he is out of line, then we are talking about 90,000 citizens. Let me assure you that not even a third of that number (is detained) which goes to show that security agencies are showing a great deal of patience in dealing with the Egyptian condition, which is a state of revolution, with all its symptoms.
But, still, we are keen that this becomes the case and the state is not exposed to more crises than it already has. Please bear in mind the security situation in the Sinai, the terrorist acts that are taking place across the nation. You will see that some in their reading of this confrontation do not take those issues I mentioned into consideration. The protest law that you have mentioned, I am not defending it, but just compare it to similar laws in European nations and in America. There, demonstrations are staged with permits, a time and a method. None of this happens in Egypt. Compare the laws and you will find that ours is not inferior to similar ones in Europe. We were keen on considering the experience of others in this regard.
Q: Do you personally truly believe in democracy and freedoms? Can freedoms and the fight against terrorism go hand in hand? Are you aware of the growing reports of police abuse and the intolerance of any narrative that is not in line with the one embraced by you and your regime?
A: I would never say that what is happening in Egypt is ideal. If we are talking about personal convictions, of course, I want there to be a very large degree of freedom. But we want to do that without hurting our nation. Our nation is in very difficult circumstances. You see what’s going on in the region. We don’t want to divorce Egypt from the region or the reality and the economic conditions. What I mean is that everything needs to be considered together.
The human rights you are talking about and which many talk about, we don’t want to limit them to the freedom of expression, although I respect the freedom of expression without a doubt.
Those who follow the media in Egypt will find that it is free to say whatever it wants. Sometimes, it is over the top but that is all right. There are many people who suffer in Egypt and I imagine that human rights (groups) overlook their need to live in dignity, get a good education and find a real job opportunity. This does not exist and I think that human rights as an idea and a practice need to be developed to deal with the issues I am talking about.
There are millions of Egyptians who live in unsuitable dwellings. There are many youths who are unemployed. That is unacceptable. They have a right to work, to live and have a home and a family. That is not available. I feel that this and more are part of human rights. People need to have an awareness of their reality, that is also a human right.
Q: Is there youth support for your government?
A: I always say that the political powers and all of us must absorb the youth of Egypt because the young make up a large proportion of Egypt but have not taken their real share of participation. Two days ago, I said we must hold a strategic forum to discuss how to bring about that the Egyptian youth participate in the political process and participate in the future. What has been done so far for the young is not enough. We are intent that the youth be present with us and after us in Egypt.
Q: What are possibilities of reconciliation with the Brotherhood?
A: I always say this question shouldn’t be directed to me, it should be directed to Egyptians. Go out and meet the simple Egyptians and talk to them about that. There should be steps to reconcile with the Egyptian people not with me. I’m not angry at anyone. It’s the Egyptians who were very hurt by what was done to them in the past two years (by the Brotherhood).
Q: Future plans on lifting subsidies
A: Truly, I have to salute Egyptians. The subsidies issue was always a complicated one that no one could go near. But as I said, a real change has happened in Egypt that we have to consider. Egyptians’ consciousness and sense of responsibility toward their nation has changed immensely in the past two years. So Egyptians’ response to that measure (lifting subsidies) — and it was a harsh measure for many Egyptians at the level of poverty, a difficult one — but they accepted it and dealt with it in an admirable way. That’s why I say a change has happened in Egyptians’ consciousness toward their nation and its troubles. Just like they were worried that the identity of Egypt might be changed. They accepted that this measure was necessary to fix the economy. These steps (subsidy reductions) are supposed to continue for the next five years, because the bill for the subsidies is more than 20 percent of the state budget.
We are making great efforts to make the atmosphere attractive to investors, whether Egyptian or Arab or from other nations. There should be a good atmosphere for investors so that we can create work and increase the capabilities of the Egyptian economy. This is an issue we must move on very strongly. You ask what are the dangers and how do we face them. We have to face the issue of the economy very well, and advanced nations have to stand beside us to support our economy so we can achieve that.
Q: What is your response to worries among investors about increased state and military role in the economy?
A: It is not at all a part of our planning to support the economy for one institution in the state to have a greater role than the state’s institutions. But a project like the Suez Canal project is one of the large national projects. We are eager to complete it in a very limited timeframe, for the benefits to the Egyptian economy and to prepare the area for the large project that is the Suez Canal corridor.
Sinai has a special status. Insuring the navigational waterway, for example, is something that is a duty of the armed forces, along with the other agencies of the state. World commerce passes through the Suez Canal, and the new canal that we are doing is parallel to the Suez Canal. The army has to be (supervising)… it has brought more than 65 civilian companies but it’s under (army) supervision to guarantee that the project does not represent any threat or danger to the waterway of the Suez Canal and international trade.
Q: When will parliament elections be held?
A: We announced two days ago that we want, in accordance with the road map, that we are supposed to have achieved this by the end of the year. We announced this. There were demands that it be postponed. But we said, we are insistent on the road map. The first step was the referendum on the constitution, and that has been finished. Then second is the presidential election, and that has been finished. The third step is the parliamentary elections, and we insist that that take place on schedule this year.
Q: Will the Muslim Brotherhood be allowed to enter the elections through a backdoor?
A: Egyptians are the ones who will choose their representatives, and we tell the Egyptians: Choose whoever is best for you because that will a step toward the future. The Egyptian people are the ones who will answer that question.
Q: But Egyptian media are unable to criticize the government. Is there democracy without press freedom?
A: No, I don’t agree. The media criticizes everyone. Just look at the articles that are written. No, no, in Egypt, without exaggeration, it’s a framework of real press freedom. No one can direct the Egyptian media — except the Egyptian conscience. The sense of patriotic responsibility says Egypt is facing extreme dangers, and journalists are working within that framework. But no one can direct the media, no one will be able to direct the media. And frankly, I don’t want for it to be directed. If you look at the menu of television channels and what they broadcast, you’ll find heavy criticism of the government and of me personally. I don’t agree with you on this point.
Q: Will you review the verdicts against the Al-Jazeera Journalists?
A: I hadn’t wanted this. But I wish the world that is criticizing (us) would look at the will of the Egyptian people. I was just a responsible person who found that there was a popular will seeking change, or else there would be domestic fighting in Egypt. My patriotic and moral responsibility did not permit me to allow Egypt to become like the nations you now see around, how they are doing. No one who loves his country could do that. I hope the people who criticize us would look carefully and not take Egypt out of the context of the reality of the region.
Q: Is a pardon possible for the Al-Jazeera journalists?
A: I have said before that if I had been in charge at the time I wouldn’t have let the issue go so far. I would have deported them. But the matter is in the hands of the judiciary now. If we are to speak of a nation that respects itself and aspires to be a sovereign state with a truly independent judiciary like a modern nation that considers criticism of the judiciary unacceptable, we also cannot allow ourselves to criticize or comment on rulings by the judiciary. Let me say that we are paying the price of an independent judiciary.
Q: What is your greatest worry?
A: Truly what worries me in Egypt is the Egyptian citizen. I have a dream for Egyptians, that we overcome our difficult economic circumstances and achieve safety and stability for everyone in Egypt and protect them from terrorism and extremism. That we have a life like you live in your countries. We want to dream for our nation that way. I want to see good and peace for my nation. I want to see my nation blossoming and progressing. I want to see security in my nation. Not just me. Me and all Egyptians, that’s what — it’s not a personal question at all, that’s what I live for all the time. But I assure you that God willing we will achieve it because the Egyptian people, this is a people, I mean — before there was history, there was Egypt. A very great people, a very capable people. So take care with Egypt.