Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi addressed the controversy over Egypt's handing over of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia in a meeting with representatives of social, political and media groups, saying that the islands were Saudi according to official documents.
El-Sisi called for the meeting Wednesday following a heated public debate and a wave of controversy following Egypt's announcement on Friday that the islands of Tiran and Sanafir fell within Saudi maritime borders.
"The controversy was caused by the difference between how a state deals with the issue and how people look at it from an individual perspective," he said in the televised meeting.
The meeting was attended by the spokespersons of 19 political parties and heads of trade unions, professional syndicates, human rights organisations, the National Council for Women, and a number of high-profile media figures.
"The decision [to acknowledge the Saudi claim] was made based on documents from Egyptian state institutions including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defence and the General Intelligence Service. We also stuck to the 1990 presidential decree that was submitted to the United Nations," El-Sisi said, referring to several documents that the government has put forward in recent days to back up the Saudi claim.
"Egypt did not give up one of its rights; we gave the land back to its people," El-Sisi said.
The president defended the timing of the agreement by saying, "had we announced the news about the islands eight months ago, our relationship with Saudi Arabia would have been negatively affected."
El-Sisi requested that people stop speaking about the issue, adding that the parliament would have its say on the matter.
"Are we going to get into a conflict with Saudi Arabia or are we going to give them their lands?" El-Sisi said.
El-Sisi stressed the importance of redrawing borders to aid in prospecting for natural resources, adding that Egypt was also redrawing its maritime borders with Cyprus and Greece.
"In June 2014, I started to look into the issue of redrawing the maritime borders with Saudi Arabia in order to start drilling for oil in the Red Sea without affecting the Saudi share," the president said.
The president also discussed several other issues during the meeting, including domestic media coverage of slain Italian student Giulio Regeni, the economy, personal freedoms and rights, the security situation in Sinai and participation by the youth in politics.
'Problematic local coverage of Regeni case'
On Regeni – the 28-year-old PhD student murdered in Cairo in January – El-Sisi asserted that investigations were being conducted with "utmost transparency."
He slammed domestic media for their coverage of the case, accusing outlets of "spreading lies" about security forces being responsible for the torture and killing of Regeni.
He denounced what he described as "evil" people in Egypt who spread "lies" and "allegations" about the case and "embarrass" Egypt internationally.
El-Sisi added the involvement of the country's judiciary in the investigation gives the process credibility.
He urged the media to be more cautious about what they publish, describing their handling of the issue as "scary" and saying that relying on social media as a source of information in such matters was "very dangerous."
Human rights questions
El-Sisi reiterated that authorities are trying to find a balance between addressing national security concerns and respecting human rights.
"Privately, you can talk about [the balance]. But in a state with a population of 90 million, and when we have evil people among us, then no." El-Sisi said.
He said that efforts were being made to ensure security and stability, including the arrest of those committing wrongdoings.
"I do not hide anything. Whoever lives with us in peace, we will take care of them. Whoever wants to use arms against Egypt, we [will pursue]."
El-Sisi told the attendees that they had to understand that the current challenges are big, adding that for the past forty years some people led the society into contradictory directions.
El-Sisi said that the government supports a role for the National Council for Human Rights and NGOs to play in society.
"During the past months, there were four batches of youths released [from prison], and we are ready to revise the cases of those jailed and release whoever is innocent. There is no doubt about this," he said.
22 months of accomplishments
El-Sisi also discussed the "accomplishments of the last 22 months," including the passing of the constitution, the election of a president and parliament, maximising efforts in fighting terrorism and the building up of state institutions.
"Compare the number of terrorist elements based in Sinai in the last five years with [their numbers] now," El-Sisi said.
He added that the security situation in North Sinai has not yet been resolved, and that the "fight would not be over quickly."
He called on the public to support the police and army in this respect.
"People [in North Sinai] are living with death for the sake of Egypt," he said.
Egyptian forces are grappling with an Islamist insurgency based in North Sinai that spiked following the 2013 ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
The Islamic State militant group has claimed responsibility of most of the attacks carried out in the region, which have killed hundreds of Egyptian security forces personnel.
Armed Forces officials have said that their operations in North Sinai have killed hundreds of militants.
The president attempted to reassure Egyptians over the country's economic situation, reiterating his pledge to low-income citizens that prices would not see hikes ahead of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
He also said the establishing of the El-Reef El-Masry company, which is tasked with distributing 1.5 million feddens for reclamation.
He added that the megaproject of the Suez Canal development corridor is underway.
El-Sisi said that within the coming two years, 50 percent of Egypt’s villages and rural areas will see developed sanitation networks.
He also discussed accomplishments related to infrastructure, electricity, and bridge construction, adding that on 25 April, several new projects would be introduced.
The president said that Egypt's foreign policy was moving in a positive direction.
"Egypt does not "answer attacks with attacks," in an apparent reference to international criticism of some government policies.
"When there is a pressure, or an enmity against me and us, our response should not rely on attacking [others], but through work," El-Sisi said.
El-Sisi asked Egyptian youth to combat corruption by participating in the upcoming municipal elections,.
He stressed that the youth would help in remedying many of the setbacks currently facing the country.
The president did not specify when the elections would take place.
El-Sisi closed by saying he neither disappointed the Egyptian people nor did he ever abandon them.
"I never doubted your sincerity. Please treat me and the state the way I treat you," he said.