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Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi sits down with chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner to discuss the pardoning of Al Jazeera journalists, whether Egypt will step up military action against the Islamic State, President Bashar al-Assad’s future in Syria, the government crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and the strength of the relationship between his nation and the U.S.
In 2013, when he was in charge of Egypt's armed forces, Sissi removed Egypt's first democratically elected president. He himself was then elected to the post last year. Egypt's struggles are many, amid almost five years of turmoil since the revolution began in January 2011.
Margaret spoke with Sissi yesterday morning in New York.
Mr. President, thank you for joining us.
This past week, the big news was that you released 100 political prisoners, including two prominent Al Jazeera journalists. Was the timing of that dictated by the fact you were coming here to the U.N. General Assembly, to quiet all the international criticism there has been of that?
PRESIDENT ABDEL-FATTAH EL-SISSI, Egypt (through interpreter):
The idea is very simple. Once the legal procedures are over and there is a possibility for me to intervene and to issue a pardon, I didn't hesitate.
In your system, does a legal pardon mean that you have concluded that the charges — that they were innocent of the charges?
PRESIDENT ABDEL-FATTAH EL-SISSI (through interpreter):
Once those are over, the legal party allows the president to intervene to bring an end to this issue and to this legal issue.
Well, now there are still 18 journalists being held, and, by conservative estimates, 20,000 or more political prisoners, many of whom had been brought in on what are said to be trumped-up terrorism charges.
Could you act and will you act as swiftly once the legal process is over?
It is very important to stop at the word of under detention.
There is no legal formality that allows me to do so, but there are court procedures force that we can deal with these cases.
So, the big issue here at the U.N. General Assembly is going to be the fight against Islamic State, and, in particular, focused on Syria right now.
Now, the anti-ISIL coalition, of which Egypt is a member, you have been at it for a full year, and yet ISIS has grown, if anything, more powerful. Something like 30,000 new fighters, foreign fighters, have entered Syria. Why is that?
It's the idea that we can fight ISIS only militarily. This means the strategy is incomplete. We need a holistic approach that would include security dimensions, an economic dimension, social and cultural dimensions as well.
Egypt has not been involved, except to bomb in Libya, where some ISIS militants have killed so many Christian Copts from Egypt. Is Egypt going to step up its military engagement?
PRESIDENT ABDEL-FATTAH EL-SISI (through interpreter):
Egypt is one member of the coalition. It has been very clear since the onset of the coalition that the Egyptian role is confined now in fighting terrorism in Sinai and on the borders with Libya that extends over 1,200 kilometers.
So more in your neighborhood?
One more question about the bigger picture.
Do you share the view of Russia and Iran that now is not the time to unseat President Bashar al-Assad or his government, as long as the fight, the number one fight is against ISIL?
We are for a political solution, not a military solution, in Syria. We want to preserve the integrity of the Syrian territory and preserve the Syrian national army.
We must confront the extremists organizations and ISIS in Syria to bring stability to the situation. We must reconstruct Syria to accommodate the refugees back into their homes now.
But do you think that President Assad can be part of the political transition?
We need to focus on the real threat, the extremism and terrorism and its negative ramifications and the huge instability that can dominate the Middle East and can spill over to other regions as well.
But now there is a big question about whether Bashar Assad and his continued presence and the way he's treating all of his own people is fueling ISIS. Do you agree with that?
I believe that the negotiations between the Syrian opposition and the regime should conclude that. We cannot just be judgmental while we are from the outside.
So, the insurgency in Sinai, I recall, when you came into power, after President Morsi, you vowed that you would clean that up in months, that you're a military man, that you would know how to do this. And, instead, it is growing. Why is that?
This is what terrorism is, and this is not a simple thing to confront. And I guess the United States has a long experience in countering terrorism in many countries. And despite all the capabilities of the United States, the United States took years in trying to defeat these terrorists.
But if we can compare the security situation two years ago and today, we find a lot of improvement. But the question is, will the flow of weapons and foreign fighters across the borders from Libya be stopped? This flow poses threats to us and a challenge to us.
Secretary Kerry said this publicly in Cairo. Senator John McCain has said it, that the crackdown on the Brotherhood in your country, the further repression and jailing of many, many dissidents has, in fact, worsened this problem and has radicalized people in a way they weren't before.
What do you say to that?
You cannot forget that Egypt has been in a state of revolution for five years, and the Egyptian resources are limited.
The state of affairs in Egypt witnessed two revolutions in two years. These have been very difficult times for Egyptians. And we have 90 million people. They need to live. At the end of the day, Egyptians want to find their basic needs provided and a better chance for life. This cannot be achieved while there is a state of chaos. The standards that you live by do not necessarily have to apply to the standards that we live in, in our own countries.
We need some time in order to reach the standards that you live by.
I understand that, but my question is, has the crackdown really, ever since you came into office, including now under the anti-terrorism law, actually fueling the insurgency in Egypt?
Undoubtedly, the crackdown on the insurgents and the terrorist members decreased the insurgent operations.
Decreased, undoubtedly decreased the terrorist operations and terrorist incidents. I'm saying to you, terrorism cannot defeat a country, especially if its people are unified in confrontation of terrorism. This is what we find in Egypt.
But, in fact, the number of attacks has increased, has it not?
No. This is not true.
So you don't think these critics could be right?
Everybody has the right to criticize. Everybody has to present their own view. But I'm just offering you our perspective.
The reality is, if we turned to Syria, Iraq or Libya, the situation would have been much more dangerous for the region and for Europe. Of our 90 million people, 60 million are young people. Imagine if we are suffering from that state of chaos. What would the situation be?
There is also concern in Congress that military equipment given to Egypt, whether Apache helicopters, Hellfire missiles, are being used in these anti-terrorist operations, but in fact are vaporizing entire villages in Sinai, the attack on the Mexican tourists in the Western Desert.
Can you ensure U.S. taxpayers that in fact their gifts to Egypt are not being used in this way in the future?
Let me respond about the incident, the unfortunate incident of the Mexican tourists. That was a mistake. They were in an off-limit area very close to the border area with Libya, dangerous areas, where smugglers used to infiltrate with weapons and foreign fighters.
As for Sinai, I want to assure you that Egypt will never use weapons or force against innocent civilians, because we will not allow ourselves to kill innocent civilians.
Let me turn to Egypt-U.S. relations, because the U.S. recently — lift the ban on military hardware to Egypt. Is it back on track now, the relationship? Do you feel it has improved?
In comparison to the last months, yes, it has improved.
And what more would you like to see?
We have started a strategic dialogue with the United States to review our strategies and try to find ways how to handle issues of common interest in a better way.
And do you trust the United States as a reliable ally?
Me? Undoubtedly. It goes without saying. The United States has never let us down throughout the past years.
That's quite a statement.
I just want to say to you, though, that the last two years presented a real test of the endurance and strength of the U.S.-Egyptian strategic relationship.
Let me go back, finally, to the state internally in Egypt.
Can you explain to the American people why so many young pro-democracy activists have been rounded up and put in prison, sometimes for violating the law that allows them — doesn't allow them to protest? It's hard for Americans to understand.
It is true that Americans won't understand that easily, because they look at us from the American perspective.
But let me explain to them that we didn't stop protests in Egypt. We only regulated the right of protesting in Egypt. Many countries do. We do not ban it, and we will not. We only regulated it.
Why? Because we need stability. We are not a rich country. This country cannot afford a state of instability.
And so you think these young liberal pro-democracy activists are a threat to that?
It is not a threat to the country. They just need to know that we cannot leave in this state of affairs forever. We need our country to progress. We need to build our country after years of stagnant waters.
We have complete respect for the liberal young people, but this cannot be the only way people judge Egypt.
People of every age and stripe who got out in Tahrir Square four years ago and inspired the world, calling for more openness, greater right of dissent, greater right to participate say it's worse than ever.
Has the dream of Tahrir died?
The dream of Tahrir still holds. And I want to tell you that there is no Egyptian president who can continue political leadership against the will of the Egyptians. This is a fundamental change now, only the presidential term, one or two terms, and the president has to go. This is the normal thing. And this is a very good development that Egypt is witnessing. And it is going to be a remarkable experience.
This is what I dream of. And this is my determination and political will. And this is what I hope for my country, that it can only be ruled by the will, by the will and the choice of the Egyptians, not against their free will.
Mr. President, thank you very much.
PRESIDENT ABDEL-FATTAH EL-SISSI:
Thank you very much, indeed.
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