At the end of a three-day World Youth Forum held at the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh on 16 December, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi answered questions from the foreign media on some of the most critical issues related to Egypt’s relations with a number of countries. The developments in Libya, however, received the lion’s share of the president’s replies.
President Al-Sisi said Egypt will not allow any force to think that it can control Libya or Sudan. “When we talk about Libya or Sudan we talk about two neighbouring countries which are of vital importance to Egypt’s national security, and so we will never allow any force to take control of these two countries,” Al-Sisi said.
Al-Sisi insisted that foreign intervention in the Arab world has become a big problem over the past 10 years. “This intervention led to the devastation of some countries like Syria, and we are against this intervention and very keen that our countries do not collapse again,” Al-Sisi said.
The president said the decision of some foreign countries to intervene in Libya has led to the delaying of a political solution to the country’s problems.
Al-Sisi also said that the developments in Libya had harmed Egypt, and that hundreds of thousands of Egyptian youths working in Libya had returned to Egypt.
“Libya is of direct importance to Egypt’s national security, and we could have intervened there, and we have the capability to do so, but we prefer not to because we are keen not to disrupt relations with the Libyan people who will not forgive such a foreign intervention in their own affairs,” Al-Sisi said.
Shortly after the president’s comments, the Libyan Embassy in Cairo decided to suspend its work in Egypt until further notice over what it called “security reasons”.
In a separate statement on 15 December, the embassy denied that members of its diplomatic mission had defected from the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli.
Some news agencies reported Saturday that the Libyan diplomatic mission in Egypt had defected from the GNA headed by Fayez Al-Sarraj, and that the mission’s members no longer recognise the GNA after it recently signed “illegitimate agreements” with Turkey, adding that it stands by the Libyan National Army (LNA), which is led by Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar and the elected parliament.
Last month, Al-Sarraj signed two memoranda of understanding with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on security and maritime boundaries in the Mediterranean.
President Al-Sisi said that the Al-Sarraj government has become helpless and has rather become a hostage of armed militias. “Yes, we do not want to intervene in the internal affairs of Libya, but we warn that some countries now use terrorism to realise political agendas in Libya that might harm Egypt,” Al-Sisi said.
In a statement on Monday, Libya’s GNA said it was surprised by President Al-Sisi’s comments. In response, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said there is nothing called the GNA. “As far as we know this GNA includes nine members, but nobody knows who these members are and what are their names,” the ministry said. Egypt had officially condemned the signing of the MoU’s, saying they violate the Skhirat Agreement which does not give the prime minister the authority to sign international agreements. Haftar announced last Thursday the start of “zero hour” of the battle to take over the Libyan capital Tripoli from the UN-supported GNA. Fighting intensified between Haftar’s forces and militias affiliated with the GNA during the past days following Haftar’s announcement.
On the other hand, President Al-Sisi said Egypt wants to conclude a maritime demarcation agreement with Greece. “We were moving positively to sign this agreement, but there was a change of the government there this year, and so we hope that we will open this file again very soon,” Al-Sisi said.
Asked about relations with the new UK government, President Al-Sisi said he had phoned newly-elected British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to congratulate him on his landslide victory in this week’s parliamentary elections. “Generally speaking, I feel optimistic that relations between Egypt and the UK will see a big boost in economic and political fields in the coming stage,” Al-Sisi said.
The Egyptian president also emphasised that Egypt’s relations with Jordan are excellent. “In this respect, Egypt stands firm against Israel’s intentions to annex more Palestinian and Jordanian land,” Al-Sisi said.
Concerning Syria, Al-Sisi stated that instead of wasting time, the focus should be on restoring the country’s stability. “Millions of Syrian refugees in all countries will return to Syria. Let the people live,” he said.
As for Lebanon, he warned of escalation in the country’s political situation.
“What happened in Lebanon was the result of a certain situation, and if it escalates, the crisis will not just be in Syria, but also in Lebanon, and it will be a bigger problem. We could see thousands of Lebanese fleeing the country as refugees,” he said.
The president demanded the restoration of the “nation-state” in the Arab world and the restoration of countries that have lost their “national sovereignty”.
“The national armies are responsible for stability and security inside their countries, and the only country that survived in the region was Egypt because of its army,” Al-Sisi said, adding that “this explains why Egypt supports national armies in the Arab world because they are the only force capable of restoring stability”.
On Qatar, President Al-Sisi insisted that Doha had not changed its harmful policies. “As you all know, the Arab quartet (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain) which decided to boycott Qatar, has imposed 13 conditions which Qatar has to meet,” Al-Sisi said, adding that “until now nothing has changed even though we hope that sincere reconciliation efforts will be successful. When we turn to the performance of certain media outlets (the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV channel) we see that they are still doing their best to cause harm to Egypt and this is not good nor encouraging for reaching any kind of reconciliation,” said Al-Sisi, adding that “this is neither a professional nor objective media, and that our local media should be ready at all times to stand up to this conspiratorial media.”
Al-Sisi said the income of some of the countries which constantly target Egypt is as high as LE20 trillion per year. “This is a huge amount of money and it is really a pity that some of this money is being used to disrupt the Arab region,” Al-Sisi said.
The president said Egypt is not looking to engage in a military confrontation. “We are not seeking to exhaust ourselves in wars, and we would rather direct our resources to spending on development projects,” Al-Sisi said.
President Al-Sisi’s remarks came just a few days ahead of the next round of trilateral talks between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan over Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which is scheduled to be held in Khartoum this weekend.
Again, Al-Sisi blamed Egypt’s 2011’s uprising for the tension with Ethiopia over the GERD. “We would not have faced the problem of this dam had Egypt been stable in 2011,” Al-Sisi said.
Concerning Egypt’s domestic situation, Al-Sisi said, “I feel comfortable about Egypt and its future. This is not due to me being in office, but due to its people which have become more conscious of the problems facing the country,” Al-Sisi said, indicating that “all countries and guests ask me how we were able to change the economic course of this country for the better in just five years. As a matter of fact, we achieved an unprecedented infrastructure programme which has lifted Egypt to another higher level of development,” Al-Sisi said.
Concerning internal politics, Al-Sisi said the government is doing its best to widen the scope of political participation. “We help political parties to compete and participate, and to achieve this end we chose some of the young people affiliated with these parties to work as deputy governors,” Al-Sisi said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.