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Egypt has experienced turbulent relations with the U.S. under the Obama administration, but President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was the first foreign leader to congratulate President-elect Donald Trump on his victory. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner interviews Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry about anti-terrorism strategy, human rights, Egypt's position on Syria and more.
The first foreign leader to call President-elect Trump after his victory was Egypt's president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
The Arab world's most populous nation has had a turbulent relationship with the Obama White House since the 2011 revolution, and the subsequent 2013 coup that first brought al-Sisi to power.
Egypt's foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, has been in Washington meeting with Secretary of State Kerry and with key leaders on Capitol Hill, and last week with Vice President-elect Mike Pence.
This morning, he sat down with our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner.
Minister Shoukry, thank you so much for having us.
President-elect Trump and your President Sisi have had some very glowing words to say about one another. Your own embassy just put out a statement that, in fact, you are looking forward to better ties with the new administration.
So, are you looking forward to turning the page on this U.S.-Egypt relationship, which has had its ups and downs over the last few years?
SAMEH SHOUKRY, Foreign Minister, Egypt:
We're certainly looking forward for consolidating and strengthening the U.S.-Egyptian relationship.
It is always our objective to have close ties with the United States. We're at a transitional period of our history and we're on a road to reform.
How do you expect the Trump administration to be different than the Obama administration when it comes to dealing with Egypt?
Well, we look forward, from what we heard from President-elect Trump, a clear vision related to the conditions and the challenges in the Middle East. And there's a great deal of parallelity in that vision related to how we can eradicate terrorism, how we can regain stability in the region.
So, are you expecting more cooperation on fighting terrorism or making that the priority, and less attention, for example, to the issue of human rights in Egypt?
That's not the issue that concerns us.
I think the issue that concerns us is certainly regaining stability, but issues of human rights are an integral part of our reform policies, of our new constitution.
Did either Mr. Trump or Mr. Pence, when you met with vice President-elect Pence, on their own raise the issue of human rights with you?
On the occasion of my meeting, it was to convey a message from President Sisi. And there was a general discussion related to conditions in the region and the importance of the strategic relationship that binds the United States and Egypt.
But what about human rights?
It wasn't raised specifically.
It wasn't raised specifically?
There is one case that is getting some attention here.
And that's of a young woman named Aya Hijazi, who came to work with her husband in a sort of center for street kids. And then she's been arrested and held for months and months on what everyone here says is bogus charges that they were abusing the children.
What is the status of that case?
Well, I think it's a very serious accusation that's been made.
And I think anyone would be interested to get to the bottom of accusations related to minors and related to abuse. So, I would challenge the issue of bogus accusations. And I think it's important to recognize the impartiality of the Egyptian judicial system.
So, let me ask you a couple of other things about human rights.
Your Parliament last week just passed another law, further restrictions on the rights or the activities of NGOs. Will President Sisi sign that?
The elected officials decided that they had their own vision of what they considered in the best interests of the public. And this was just before I left, so I don't have any information related to what the president's position on it is.
As you know, human rights are a deep concern here in the United States in terms of what's going on in Egypt.
And it is hard for people to understand why so many dissidents, journalists, activists, nonviolent people, NGOs, have been rounded up, are being detained, are having their rights restricted, why, for people who speak out, for people who want to demonstrate.
My — exactly. It's not a matter of people speaking out.
There's nobody who's been accused of anything related to freedom of expression or undertaking activities of civic responsibility. All those who have been subjected to a judicial inquiry and trials have been accused of criminal activity, criminal activity, whether it's in demonstrating without necessary permits, in violent activity during demonstrations, and such issues that are penalized in the criminal code.
Let me turn now to Syria.
Initially — and, of course, it was a different government. The government of Egypt opposed President Bashar al-Assad. But there are signs now that, in fact, the Egyptian government is growing closer to him, more supportive. President Sisi said he thought the Assad army was perhaps best equipped to fight terrorism. You have been also voting with Russia in the Security Council on resolutions related to Syria.
If the Syrian government asked Egypt to also send forces of any kinds, and there have been rumors to this effect, would Egypt send some to help him?
Let me clarify that the president, when he made his statements, wasn't referring to Syria in particular. He was referring to the fact that we consider that it is the national armies of the nation state which are responsible to fight terrorism. That is their primary responsibility. They have the better ability, rather than relying on any form of foreign intervention in this regard.
So, we believe that a political solution should be under way, and that which is necessarily inclusive of all political factions in Syria. So, there is no commitment towards any specific political entity in Syria. There hasn't been any reference to the current Syrian government.
So, would you say your position is closer to that of the United States or — right now — or to Russia?
We have been cooperating with both the United States and Russia, have been actively supporting a greater understanding between them because of their ability to impact the situation.
We believe that it is intolerable that the current level of violence and — that we continue after five years of a half-a-million loss of life, that we — that this situation should continue.
Let me end with asking you about a couple of campaign promises.
President-elect Trump said he was going to push to renegotiate this entire Iran nuclear deal. Do you think that's a good idea?
The issue is very important. And we must guarantee that the region remains free of nuclear weapons.
And so do you think the Iran nuclear deal furthers that aim?
We believe that the deal can — has room for improvement, definitely, in terms of the time and in terms of the guarantees to prevent any proliferation of nuclear weapons.
And then, finally, he promised to move the U.S. Embassy — this is an old issue — from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Would that be high on your list?
No. We have always opposed any movement in that direction as contravening international law and legitimacy.
Thank you very much, sir.
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