Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—In October 2013, the situation in Egypt—with all its political complexities, social problems and security risks—was clear to see, in the faces of everyone on the streets and the countenance of people going about their daily business. Everywhere you went, from a humble market to a hotel frequented by businessmen and foreigners, the conversation was the same, anxious and pessimistic about the Egyptian people’s shattered dreams and the difficulty of finding a way forward.
Today, Cairo is a different city. Traffic moves easily through the streets of a capital city now enjoying a sense of stability and calm. Business carries on easily, as it used to. The smells, sights and sounds have returned to how they have been for decades, if not centuries. Cairo—the heart of Egypt—is comfortably normal.
Even the Cairenes themselves have changed. They carry themselves more comfortably on the way to work or school. Their preoccupations have changed, at least to some extent. Their faces have begun to reflect their sense of hope for the future, and the conversations you hear in the Egyptian vernacular are now pervaded by a sense of stability.
Still, when you talk to businessmen you get a sense of how acute is the economic crisis that is choking the country. True, the Egyptian currency has shown considerable strength and stability in the face of the successive waves of disruption that have hit Egypt and its economy. But still, today the concerns of businessmen are tempered by honestly held hopes of economic recovery after the next president takes office.
Even more, it is clear that everyone in this magnificent city holds hopes for the elections this year, both presidential and legislative. They feel the forthcoming parliamentary elections will mark a democratic turning point for Egypt, putting to rest their country’s woes and ushering in an era of security and stability in a country that still suffers from violence, even terrorism.
We met one of Egypt’s presidential candidates in a new, but still crowded, part of Cairo, Nasr City, in a quiet retreat overlooking the last resting place of Egypt’s Unknown Soldier—a pyramid-shaped monument constructed on the order of President Sadat in 1974 in honor of those Egyptians and Arabs who lost their lives in the October War the year before. It also eventually became Sadat’s final resting place, after he was assassinated in 1981.
Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, the former defense minister, was busy and surrounded by journalists—it was the last day of the campaign, and they all wanted one last comment—but he gave Asharq Al-Awsat much of his time. His mannerisms may be somewhat difficult to translate into words printed on paper, but he struck me as a modest person who deals with others in a simple and straightforward manner. That minimalism of action also comes out when he delivers an argument, which he does clearly and succinctly. He clearly knows what must be done, both by himself and by others. And through all of this—indeed, through all of Egypt’s trying times since the events of last summer—he remains completely honest, even when addressing the most sensitive issues.
Asharq Al-Awsat: The region has witnessed several popular uprisings over the past three years. Is this the result of social transformation or a shift in the regional balance of power?
Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi: There can be no doubt that social transformation took place as a result of political and economic changes in more than one country, and this resulted in what we see today. We must also not ignore the presence of regional transformation that happened as a result of these revolutions and changes. In reality, there are those who are trying to change the balance of power to suit their own interests and harm the interests of others. We have seen significant shifts in Egypt, and there were those who were trying to harm the national interests; however, we were able to overcome all of this thanks to the will of the people. For Egypt to return to its natural position, we need a lot of hard work and effort, as well as some hope.
Everybody has confidence in the future, but we will not achieve what we are aspiring to except through serious work on all levels. Real improvement will only take place through serious and conscience regional cooperation. As for the balance of power, I believe that the real balancing force will be the presence of a vital, strong and wise power in the region—here in Egypt the rest of the Arab world.
Q: In Libya, there are armed confrontations between forces affiliated to the former Libyan military and Islamist militias. What is your view about what is happening in the country?
Unfortunately, over the past two years Libya has become a focus for the assembly of armed and extremist militias. The Libyan people took to the streets to change the former regime and to participate in creating the future and establish a state of institutions—a civil state in which everybody participates. However, as a result of the presence of these militias violence and arms have prevailed, and Libya has become a rallying point for terrorist elements.
The Europeans should have finished what they started following the collapse of the former regime, confiscating weapons to preserve the security and safety of the country. I do not think anybody could have objected to that. As for Egypt, there has been a crucial decision and clear message that we will not allow any terrorist operation against our country to take place from Libyan territory.
Q: And if the situation in Libya continues as it is?
After what happened in Libya, there should have been an elimination of the phenomenon of arms proliferation. This does not reflect the Libyan people’s aspirations, namely freedom and the fulfillment of the will of the people in terms of building an inclusive state. This will certainly not happen in the presence of this proliferation of arms; it can only be archived through a roadmap that expresses the will of the Libyan people, not the militias, and such a plan would be met with widespread support.
Q: Does this mean we should be supporting the parties that are fighting against the Islamist militias in Libya?
This does not mean Egyptian or Arab intervention in Libya, but there is a duty to support moderation and strengthen the Libyans in their confrontation against extremism.
Q: This brings us to the question of the Syrian conflict. Do you think that the Arab positions towards this war have changed as the crisis has dragged on?
There was an Arab position towards what is happening in Syria, but the situation on the ground is evolving. I believe that we need to review this new reality. We need political solutions and to avoid the military solution. At the same time, we are committed to Syria as a unified state—without division or partition, particularly as this would create more problems and enforce a new and complicated reality on the ground. We are facing the delicate balancing act of preserving Syria while exterminating the terrorist and takfirist groups that have appeared on the scene there.
Q: What about the prospect of the survival of President Bashar Al-Assad, particularly as Syria is in the process of holding presidential elections?
Resolving the Syrian crisis must take place at three points. These are the foundations which must be built upon; we must reach a solution without either escalating the conflict or dividing the country or allowing the takfirist groups a role. Everybody must work to find solutions to achieve this goal.
Q: You are speaking about takfirism—but the armed groups that have intervened in Syria also include Hezbollah . . .
The alliance between Syria and Hezbollah is well known, and so any support from one party to the other is understood. Resolving the Syrian crisis is the only way of ending the interdependent relationship between these two sides. After this is achieved, you would be able to resolve the other complex issues associated to the bitter reality the Syrian people have been experiencing for more than three years.
Q: Moving to Palestine: What about the Hamas movement, which has organizational and ideological links to the Muslim Brotherhood?
Hamas and its ideological links [to the Muslim Brotherhood] are not important to us. What is important is that none of this affects the security of Egypt, and for this ideology not to be used to harm anyone.
Of course, nobody believes that this will be able to harm Egypt’s security or tamper with the capabilities of the Egyptian people. This is unfeasible. People are free to believe whatever they wish. We do not intervene in anybody’s choices, but at the same time we will not allow anybody to tamper with Egypt’s national security. Everybody knows that the Egyptians do not accept anything that threatens our security, even though they [Hamas] have been present since 2005. Since that time, the tunnel trade [under the Egyptian border to Gaza], including arms smuggling, has increased. This had a significant effect [on Egypt]. At the start of terrorist activities in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt took the crucial decision to put an end to this. I would like to confirm here that we will not allow the situation to return to how it was before.
Q: You previously said that there would be no Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt if you became president. Do you stand by this statement?
The Egyptian people have a certain position [on the Muslim Brotherhood]. It is the responsibility of the Egyptian people alone to decide this. The Egyptian people were prepared on July 3 to accept every party, but their support for the Brotherhood had now completely ended.
Q: What about the “international” Muslim Brotherhood? Some countries in the region have placed the Brotherhood on their “terrorist” watch lists—how do you view this move?
The complete cooperation between the key Arab parties who were able to take this important decision has become clear. One of the results of this decision will be to put an end to the presence of this group domestically and internationally, while any remnant of the Brotherhood will have a limited influence. However we—Egypt and the Gulf states—must monitor this issue.
We also see that the new reality in the Arab region is reshaping the West’s view towards the Brotherhood and their ilk, and we have examples [of this] in terms of what is happening in Libya and Syria.
Q: If you are elected president, you would have the power to grant amnesty. Would you pardon those members of the Muslim Brotherhood who were convicted recently?
The problem is that they need to reconcile with the Egyptians: Go out into the street and ask the people.
Q: Did you harbor any ambitions to the presidency when you issued the declaration that ended Brotherhood rule last July 3?
No. There was a huge public pressure from all Egyptians; the sense of danger and fear of confrontation had driven people to demand an end to Brotherhood rule. Had things been running smoothly, people would not have had to call on me for help.
Q: We have seen Egypt regress over the past few years due to the domestic situation. What foreign policy would you seek to follow if you become president?
We have a policy of openness towards everybody. We want to cooperate. We do not want to clash with anybody, so long as there is mutual respect and the other side avoids clashing with us. We are committed to the unity of Egyptian and Gulf security, and the interdependence of all Arab security. This is indivisible. We will also work to strengthen cooperation with the Nile Basin countries as a joint strategic depth, as well as to consolidate cooperation with all international states on the basis of equality, mutual trust and non-inference in the affairs of others.
I also emphasize the expansion of options for [international] cooperation in order to achieve national interests. Strategic relations with the US do not preclude relations with other global powers, such as Russia, China and the European Union. We are committed to the Palestinian cause until a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem is established. We are also committed to Africa and to relations with Islamic states. We will work to manage foreign relations according to a strategic vision that will achieve mutual interests of all parties.
Q: What is your view of the negotiations between the P5+1 group of states and Iran? Do you support or object to these negotiations?
We support any security arrangements that do not affect the security of the Gulf, on the basis that this [Gulf security] is Egyptian security and we will not allow any party to tamper with it.
Q: Where does Egypt stand on the nuclear technology debate?
The peaceful use of nuclear capabilities is guaranteed by international treaties. There are countries that possess advanced technology which can produce a nuclear weapon but have not done so. The question here is: Can we get to the level where we have the required knowledge and capability to produce a nuclear weapon, but only use this knowledge for peaceful purposes?
Q: You announced that Saudi Arabia would be the first country you would visit if you became president of Egypt. What is the message that you would bring Saudi Arabia on this visit?
Allow me to first express all my appreciation and respect to the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz. He is a wise and true Arab ruler, and that is why I said that the first country that I want to visit is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I want to visit to express my appreciation to Hakim Al-Arab [the wise man of the Arabs]. I will not forget how he stood with us and still stands with us, nor will I forget his support for the Egyptian people, which changed the balance of the equation.
Let me emphasize the need to integrate the stances of the two countries during times of trouble, and for Egypt and Saudi Arabia to always stand together and not allow our joint relations to be harmed again. Second, it would serve Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s national security interests to integrate. The sense of Arab nationalism has always motivated us, because we are intertwined and we support one another. This is something that we always need. I previously said that Egypt will not stand idly by in the face of any threat to any Gulf state. There is only a short distance [masasfa sikka] between us. This means that in the event that Egypt is called to respond to any act that threatens any state . . . We will respond immediately. And I repeat that there is only masasfa sikka between us.
Q: You previously served as Egypt’s military attaché to Saudi Arabia. What are your memories of your time in the Kingdom?
I have many powerful memories from this time, including my visit to the Al-Faisaliyah Center [the third-tallest building in Saudi Arabia] after it opened. I also recall the generosity of the Saudis, the excellent food, and the Saudi personality, which I have every respect for.
Q: What other countries do you intend to visit if you are elected?
The priority will without doubt be given to Arab countries, as well as Saudi Arabia, as I said. I also intend to visit the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and neighboring African countries. We still have a long way to go.
Q: What if you were invited by the White House?
I would make any visit beneficial to the interests of the Egyptian nation and its people.
Without a doubt, we have a different understanding than others. We also have our own understanding of what happened in the past. In the first few months that followed June 30, it was difficult for some countries in North America and Europe to fully comprehend what had happened or to understand the objective reasons behind the step the Egyptian people had taken. But after those few months, we noticed they were gradually beginning to understand— not to suggest that they have arrived at a complete understanding, because the roadmap is yet to be completed.
Q: You recently visited the United Arab Emirates, at a time when Egyptian and Emirate forces were concluding joint military exercises. What is the reason for this visit?
First, let me emphasize that there has long between military cooperation between Egypt and the UAE forces, as well as annual joint military training. We will continue with more training, so that our forces are prepared to work in different theaters of operation.
Q: There have been counter-terrorist operations taking place in the Sinai Peninsula and elsewhere in Egypt for over a year. How are these operations progressing?
It is clear that we must pay attention to the danger of the map we are confronted with today. We cannot wait for terrorists to enter our country: we must confront this. It is important to put in place a comprehensive strategy to protect the hearts and minds of our people. We will also work to change the religious discourse that is offensive to Islam, and that is through a joint Arab vision and strategy to solve these issues.
Q: Can you give us any specifics?
We are committed to schools of religious science, and we are looking again to schools that promulgate moderate Islam, to protect minds against extremism.
Q: It is clear from your statements that you are familiar with Islamist literature . . .
I do not want to specify the names of any books. This issue is based on long years of research and readings. I ask myself: Why is the situation like this? I have felt that there is something wrong since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, and anybody who wants to confirm this need only look at a map. Therefore, it is our duty as Muslims to try and find out why the situation is how it is.
Q: But there were revisions during the Hosni Mubarak era, with some Islamists renouncing violence and being granted greater access to society as a result. Is your priority to contain the Islamists?
There is a difference between those who abandon violence and adhere to the constitution and the rule of law and those who abandon terrorist acts but ultimately remain committed to their old ideology and views. The situation requires a comprehensive strategy to deal with this phenomenon, a continuous review until the threats have passed. We believe that Al-Azhar has an important role to play, and this will continue in the future. We must work to protect the youth by promoting true moderate Islam, which prevents the spread of extremism, otherwise extremism and militancy will remain. Unfortunately, what is happening gives us the impression that religion is extremism, and this is a great injustice and a wrong.
Q: The Egyptian economy has been in decline. How would you address this?
To begin, we studied examples from Brazil and other countries that are similar in population size to Egypt in terms of population in order to learn from their experiences. At the same time, I always asked people around me and economic affairs experts whether these countries went through the same circumstances Egypt is today witnessing, in terms of the political transition. We have many challenges and negativities that require an ambitious and wide-ranging strategy in order to get Egypt out of the circle of poverty and to ease its burdens. This requires everybody’s understanding.
Think of what happened recently in Greece, and how the whole of Europe stood with it to find a way out of the crisis. This was also the case with Portugal and Spain.
Q: What is your view of the subsidies issue?
There are rich people and even foreign embassies in Egypt receiving subsidies, but it is the poor who are the ones who badly need them. Many issues should be reconsidered through what I call the ‘smart subsidy’ system.
There are many plans, initiatives and examples . . . Indeed, there is a plan [to reform subsidies]. We hope that public sentiment will allow it to be carried out.
Q: Do you have a plan for your first hundred days in office?
The idea of the ‘first hundred days’ is a foreign import. The ‘first hundred days’ could be a benchmark in politically stable countries that have strong state institutions and are not facing serious threats—unlike Egypt. Egyptians should feel that the situation in all fields is improving within few months.
Q: Were any confidential documents leaked during the January 25 revolution in 2011, especially given the security service’s headquarters were stormed?
No state secrets have been leaked. True, due to the turmoil some negative incidents took place. However, some state institutions—including the intelligence service and the foreign affairs ministry, among others— have kept their secrets. These circumstances have come to an end, and we will not at any cost allow any threats against or attacks on the state’s security.
Q: What are your aspirations for the new parliament, which will be elected shortly after the next president?
I hope the parliament will continue what I have started. I have a great hope that the forthcoming parliament will establish the basic rules that will enable the people to achieve their aspirations.
Q: In Arab politics, the personality of the president or the leader and his relationship with his counterparts affect the country’s policies. Would you present a different model of power?
The personality and the personal choices of the president or the leader or any elected figure should not influence the choices of the state. National interest should be the basis.
This interview has been translated from the Arabic, which can be read here.