Egypt's Sisi says open to criticism, admits deficiency in dealing with youth

Hatem Maher , Tuesday 2 Feb 2016

Egyptian president phones popular television show to comment on anti-army and police chants by hardcore football fans and brief detention of young cartoonist

Egypt's President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi attends the opening ceremony of the 26th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union (AU) at the AU headquarters in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, January 30, 2016 (Reuters)

Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi said on Monday that he does not mind criticism, stressing that it is his job to placate disgruntled youths, a day after a cartoonist was arrested for what critics suggest was retaliation for caricatures mocking the former army chief.

Cartoonist Islam Gawish was released earlier on Monday without being charged, having been cleared by the prosecution of having ties with a news website which security authorities say was operating without a license.

Gawish, who gained fame on social media for posting satirical cartoons on his Facebook page, said that an officer “unofficially” accused him of insulting the regime.

“I’m not upset at Gawish or anyone…No one can speak on my behalf and say that I get upset from criticism,” El-Sisi said in a phone interview with Al-Qahera Al-Youm show on Orbit channel.

“If I accept being in such a position, I must bear all the consequences. There is no such thing as all people agreeing on something.

“Every day, the 90 million people in Egypt find many things which make them uncomfortable, like the case of Gawish … Such things happen, and this is natural in a country which was in a revolutionary state for four years.”

Angry youth

El-Sisi said he phoned the television show to speak about the saga of the Ultras, hardcore football fans who chanted against Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, El-Sisi’s predecessor as an army chief, and the interior ministry while commemorating the fourth anniversary of the 2012 Port Said disaster on Monday. 

Seventy-two fans of Egypt’s most popular club Ahly were killed in the coastal city after being attacked by rival Masry supporters following the end of a league match exactly four years ago.

The Ultras accused Tantawi, Egypt’s de facto ruler at the time, of complicity in the country’s worst-ever football tragedy. Eleven people were given death sentences and more than a dozen were handed lengthy prison terms over their role in the disaster but the diehard fans still believe the real culprits remain untouched.

Nine police officials are among the 73 defendants standing retrial on charges related to the killing of the young fans, with final verdicts yet to be read or carried out.

“I call on the Ultras to select 10 of their members whom they trust to be part of a committee to look into all the details concerning this case and determine what more can be done,” El-Sisi said.

The police — despite a heavy presence at the Port Said Stadium — showed a great deal of passivity while home fans were attacking the visitor stands en masse, raising suspicions that they had a hand in orchestrating the disaster.

Since their foundation in 2007, Ultras groups have often clashed with security forces during matches, with the tragic incident at Port Said bringing accumulating enmity between the police and Ultras groups to a peak.

“In events with large crowds, it’s always difficult to determine the truth behind what happened,” El-Sisi added before listing some of the incidents which pitted protesters against security forces during the tumultuous years that followed the ouster of autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak following an 18-day uprising in 2011.

Many disgruntled youths are unhappy with what they deem heavy-handed practices by security forces. Scores of Islamist, liberal, and secular activists have been jailed since El-Sisi was elected president in June 2014.

Many fell foul of a restrictive protest law as Egypt’s interior ministry cracked down on dissent. El-Sisi repeatedly said he has high regard for human rights but that more pressing issues, such as the frail economy, should be the main source of concern.

“It’s us who are not able to properly communicate with them [angry youths]. We are the ones who are unable to find common ground. I’m exerting lots of effort in this matter and I’m aware that I will need time,” he added.

“Finding the balance between security measures and human rights is a sensitive and delicate issue which requires a lot of effort.”

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