Egypt’s president has told CBS that his country and Israel, with whom it fought four wars, are cooperating against Islamic militants in the Sinai Peninsula, a startling and potentially damaging acknowledgment that could explain the Egyptian government’s request that the network not air the interview.
Excerpts from the interview released by CBS over the weekend also quoted President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi as denying there are political prisoners in Egypt, where he has overseen one of the largest crackdowns on dissent in the country’s modern history since the ouster by the military, then led by him, of an Islamist but divisive president.
CBS, which is due to air the full interview Sunday on its show “60 Minutes,” said it has rejected a request by the Egyptian government not to show it. It did not say which part of the president’s comments the Cairo government objected to, but the cooperation with Israel, with whom Egypt has a 1979 peace treaty, appears to be the most contentious part.
Al-Sissi gave the interview in New York about three months ago, when the Egyptian leader was there attending the UN General Assembly, but CBS did not say why it was not aired earlier. Egypt’s foreign ministry spokesman could not be reached for comment.
Egypt’s military last year denied press reports that Egypt and Israel were cooperating against the militants in northern Sinai, a rugged region of mountains and desert bordering Israel and the Gaza Strip where Egyptian security forces have for years battled the extremists, now led by the Islamic State group.
According to the excerpts, el-Sissi was asked if his country’s cooperation with Israel was the closest ever between the two countries. “That is correct. ... We have a wide range of cooperation with the Israelis,” he responded. The excerpts did not provide the complete question on bilateral cooperation or specifically mention the Sinai militants.
Israeli officials have publicly praised security cooperation with el-Sissi’s Egypt, which has successfully secured Israel’s permission to deploy troops, armor and helicopter gunships close to the Israeli border to fight the militants, contravening the peace treaty’s limitations on the number or troops and type of weapons Egypt can have in the region.
El-Sissi has since taking office in 2014 met at least twice with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Their meetings have received little media attention in Egypt, a country where most people still view their neighbor as their sworn enemy and where trade unions and most political parties are vehemently opposed to “normalization” of relations with Israel.
In the interview, el-Sissi questioned a recent Human Rights Watch report that said Egypt was detaining 60,000 political prisoners.
“I don’t know where they got that figure. I said there are no political prisoners in Egypt. Whenever there is a minority trying to impose their extremist ideology we have to intervene regardless of their numbers,” he told CBS, according to the excerpts.
El-Sissi has in the past claimed that everyone in detention is facing legal proceedings for a specific crime committed, but rights activists complain of long detentions without charges — as long as two years or more in some cases. They say that the trials that don’t follow proper judicial processes and are more concerned with “protecting the state” — a cornerstone of el-Sissi’s rule — than enforcing the law.
The detentions are part of a large crackdown on dissent that includes tight control of the media, placing draconian restrictions on rights groups and reversing most of the freedoms gained by a 2011 uprising against autocrat Hosni Mubarak. El-Sissi also won a second, four-year term in office last year after running virtually unopposed.