Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi defended Egypt’s human rights record during an interview with veteran journalist Charlie Rose on the US-based PBS TV channel, stressing that “there can be no return to dictatorship” in Egypt.
In the lengthy interview covering a number of domestic and regional issues, President El-Sisi said that media outlets have not given an accurate representation of the human rights situation and the state of NGOs in Egypt.
The president, who is currently in New York to attend the 71st United Nations General Assembly, stressed that Egyptian media “says what it wants as there are no restrictions and there is no dictatorship in Egypt,” according to an Arabic transcript of the interview released on Tuesday by Egypt's state-owned MENA news agency.
He added that the Egyptian government is trying to achieve security and stability as there is “a faction” in Egypt that routinely resorts to violence against the state and the Egyptian people.
The president said that Egypt's House of Representatives is currently discussing a law regulating NGOs, adding that there are 4,000 such organisations in the country that are providing valuable services to society.
“There is a misunderstanding regarding this case [NGOs] which is giving a negative impression about Egypt,” he said, adding that “friends understand each other, especially at a time when radical groups are working to destabilise the region.”
An Egyptian court upheld on Saturday an administrative order freezing the assets of five prominent rights activists over accusations of receiving foreign funding “with the aim of destabilising the country” following the 2011 uprising. The decision sparked an outcry in the United States and Europe.
The president said that “some issues” had taken place before he came to office, such as the arrest of Al-Jazeera journalists Peter Greste and Mohamed Fahmy in 2013, which he said he worked to “settle” by issuing presidential pardons.
President El-Sisi revealed that he gave the secretary of the US Department of State a list of names of people who have been released from detention in Egypt, whether by the courts or by presidential pardon, in order to demonstrate to the US administration “Egypt's efforts on the issue.”
"But there is no media coverage of this," El-Sisi said.
When asked what message he would like to deliver to the US president, El-Sisi said that Egypt is committed to bilateral relations and stressed that Egypt has seen significant changes since the 2011 uprising, adding that the past five years have “tested” Egypt’s strong, three decades-long relationship with the US.
‘No religious discrimination in Egypt’
El-Sisi stressed in the interview that there is no religious discrimination in Egypt, and that all Egyptians have the same rights and duties and that no one is defined by their religion.
El-Sisi talked about the recently passed law introducing reforms to address the restrictive environment faced by those looking to build churches in Egypt, adding that the mass attacks on churches in 2013 was the work of “a radical faction.”
“All the churches [damaged in the 2013 attacks] will be fully restored by the end of this year,” the president said, adding that there is a need to promote equality and end discrimination in Egyptian society.
The country saw widespread attacks on churches in August 2013 after the government dispersed sit-ins in Cairo protesting the army’s removal of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi following massive protests against his rule.
El-Sisi, who was defence minister at the time, ordered the Armed Forces to take charge of rebuilding or restoring the churches attacked during the unrest.
When asked about the current state of Egypt's economy, El-Sisi said that terrorism has deprived Egypt of major sources that traditionally contribute to the economy, adding that terrorists were trying to weaken the society.
“Egypt has been facing a fierce war against terrorism for more than three years and needs to ensure security on its borders... which requires huge efforts and resources,” he said.
Regarding the loan programme recently signed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Egyptian president said that it would give creditability to the economic reform plan adopted by the Egyptian government.
Egypt reached a preliminary agreement with the IMF in August to secure a three-year $12 billion loan facility, which is awaiting approval from the fund's executive board.
El-Sisi added that the Egyptian government is keen on boosting economic growth as well as solving the foreign currency problem in Egypt by the end of 2016.
Middle East peace process and international relations
Regarding the peace process in the Middle East and reaching a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, President El-Sisi said that when he calls for Israel to embrace peace in his speeches and public statements, he directs his comments not only to the Israeli leadership, but also to the people of Israel.
“Peace can change the Middle East region,” he said, adding there is a huge difference between convincing the citizens of the importance of peace and forcing a solution through pressure, which would not be effective.
The Egyptian president suggested that the Palestinian issue was among the primary factors fuelling terrorism, and that if a peace settlement is reached this can bring stability between Israel and the Arab countries.
When asked about Turkish-Egyptian relations, the president said that so far there has been no improvement in the strained relationship between the two countries.
“The Middle East region is witnessing enough conflict, and Egypt is trying to give time for others to understand the region's circumstances and the current circumstances in Egypt,” he said.
Relations between Turkey and Egypt have been strained since the 2013 ouster of Morsi, a close ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP government.
Erdogan has repeatedly made statements in support of Egypt's banned Muslim Brotherhood group, which Egypt has condemned as provocative.
However, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said last month that Turkey was looking to improve relations with Egypt.
Regarding Egyptian-Russian relations, President El-Sisi said that Egypt has granted Russia a tender to build a nuclear power plant in Egypt, as its offer was the best among those made by several countries.
In November 2015, the Egyptian government signed an agreement with Russia to build Egypt's first nuclear power plant at Dabaa, located in the country’s Marsa Matrouh governorate, which aims to generate total of 4,800 megawatts through four units.