President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi justified Egypt’s security crackdowns and called on Western governments to continue bombing Libya in interviews with the British Telegraph newspaper and the BBC on Wednesday, before he took off for London to meet with UK Prime Minister David Cameron.
Sisi is seeking to enhance bilateral trade and to promote investment in Egypt during his official Wednesday-to-Friday visit. He is due to meet with Cameron on Thursday to discuss Egypt’s role in the global war on terrorism, among other topics.
Sisi is seeking the assistance of the UK and other NATO members in bombing targets across Libya to counter the rise of armed insurgency in the country, according to the Telegraph — a mission that this alliance began in 2011, when they bombed forces loyal to then-President Muammar Qadhafi.
“It was a mission that was not completely accomplished. What happened was that Libya was left without leadership when it needed our help most. Now we have a situation where the will of the Libyan people is being held hostage by militant groups,” Sisi asserted.
The Libyan leadership is divided, with one government based in the capital Tripoli and another in Tobruk. The Tobruk alliance, whose forces are headed by renegade General Khalifa Haftar, has the support of Sisi’s government.
Libya has become “a danger that threatens us all,” Sisi said in his interview with the Telegraph on Tuesday. He warned that if radical groups such as those affiliated to the Islamic State continue to operate, instability will spread to both Egypt and Europe.
The UK should move to directly “stop the flow of funds and weapons” to extremists in Libya, the 60-year-old retired field marshall argued.
Sisi’s government reacted swiftly when Islamic State-affiliated militants beheaded 21 Coptic Christian Egyptians on a Libyan shore in February. Shortly thereafter, the Egyptian Air Force bombed targets in Libya and reportedly killed 64 Islamic militants.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch reported that at least seven civilian non-combatants were killed in the airstrikes.
Sisi gave a televised interview with the BBC that was recorded in Cairo ahead of his London visit and aired on Wednesday. In the interview, reporter Lyse Doucet asked: “In Britain there have been protests, including a letter signed by British MPs and academics, saying that President Sisi shouldn’t have been invited, and they accuse you of being a dictator. How do you respond to that?”
“There is freedom of expression and thought in your country, and in Egypt too,” Sisi responded. “We want people to hear us in order to understand us, and to see what the reality of things are like in Egypt.”
When asked about Egypt’s counter-terrorism legislation, the president asserted that “for the past five years, we’ve been living in a condition of revolution. We want stability. We don’t want to do this by force. The people have the right to demonstrate, and they can remove me from office if they want.”
The controversial protest law passed in 2013, however, stipulates up to five years in prison for demonstrating without prior authorization. Hundreds of demonstrators have already been arrested under its provisions.
“Why do you need such sweeping powers for your security forces?” Doucet asked. “Why is civil disobedience not allowed?”
“The laws aren’t oppressive or stringent, or anything like that,” Sisi answered. “Don’t forget that we are plagued by terrorism along our 1,000-km-long border with Libya, and Sinai and around Egypt. We need stability so that the rest of Egyptian society can survive.”
When asked how long such laws would remain in place, Sisi avoided the question. “We’ve accomplished a great deal in just over a year,” he said. “When security and stability are restored, then we won’t need any of these extra measures.”
“But tens of thousands are in jail,” Doucet responded.
Sisi replied, “These arrests were made in accordance with the law. They are not illegal detentions. We have regular reviews to make sure that nobody is wrongly imprisoned.” The president added that he had recently pardoned a number of political prisoners.
“Nobody is oppressed in Egypt, but we are living through critical times,” Sisi continued. “Our friends in the West should know that we face monumental problems, and if we work together we can find a solution.”
Sisi asserted that millions of Egyptians want stability, job opportunities and improved living standards. “We need to find a balance between human rights and doing what is right for society as a whole,” he told Doucet.
Sisi defended the actions of his government toward Muslim Brotherhood supporters, claiming he has been enacting the will of the Egyptian people. He asserted the outlawed group is responsible for “murder, sabotage and destruction,” but took a softer line in his BBC interview than in the past with international media. “They are Egyptians, after all,” he added.
Acting in his then-capacity as defense minister, in August 2013 Sisi ordered the bloody dispersals of the pro-Brotherhood sit-ins at Rabea al-Adaweya and Nahda Squares. At least 1,000 people were killed in the ensuing violence.
Ahead of Sisi’s visit, in the UK there has been heavy criticism from human rights groups, people who oppose Sisi’s government and pro-Muslim Brotherhood groups.
As Sisi arrived in the UK on Wednesday evening, British and Irish airlines suspended all flights to and from Sharm el-Sheikh airport amid suspicion that a bomb brought down the Russian jet that crashed in the Sinai Peninsula on Saturday, killing the 217 passengers and seven crew aboard.
Although there is no conclusive evidence this was the case, the Province of Sinai — a militant group that pledged alliegance to the Islamic State in November 2014 — claimed responsibility for the incident. The crash is being investigated by a team from Egypt, Russia, Ireland, France and Germany.