Messages from Al-Sisi

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi opened this week a lengthy three-part interview published in the three national newspapers Al-Ahram, Al-Akhbar and Al-Gomhouriya. Conducted by the papers’ chief editors, the interview focussed on several issues of concern to Egyptian and regional public opinion, Egyptian positions on the state of the Middle East, and efforts by the Egyptian presidency to find a solution to regional crises and escalating conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen. The interview also turned to the Egyptian vision for a resolution of the Palestinian issue following Al-Sisi’s statement several months ago on the need to find a solution to an issue that is still an Arab priority.

The interview was divided into three parts, the first dealing with regional issues and the second and third with domestic economic and social issues.

After days of increasing media reports about tension in Egyptian-Gulf relations, especially with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Al-Sisi sent a clear message about the depth of ties between Egypt and its brother Arabs in the Gulf. He said that Egypt is contributing much to reaching resolutions in Syria, Yemen and Libya out of concern for Egyptian and Arab national security. He praised the path of ties with Gulf states, saying, “Egypt’s relations with Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are strong and durable. We are very concerned about this, and our brothers are concerned as well about strengthening the relationship. The bad thing is that some reduce ties to Gulf countries to the support coming from them, and that is wrong.”

Al-Sisi talked about his views on the debate over the agreement setting the maritime border between Egypt and Saudi Arabia with regard to the Tiran and Sanafir Islands. He said he is dealing with the issue in a framework of “full respect for state institutions and the judiciary and its rulings. Parliament has the full opportunity to study the agreement, and the Saudis understand the nature and importance of constitutional procedures to ratify any agreements. There is no problem with that.”

He added, “Egyptian participation in the Arab coalition forces includes participating with naval forces to secure navigational freedom in the Bab Al-Mandab Straits and provide security for ships reaching the Suez Canal. We have air forces with our brothers in Saudi Arabia, but we have no ground forces in any country in the region. The only forces we have outside Egypt are part of UN peacekeeping forces.”

Al-Sisi pointed to four principles governing Egypt’s foreign relations and noted the independence of national decision-making over the last two years. He said clearly that no one has been able to dictate anything to Egypt: “We manage our relations with nations of the world with basic principles in mind. The first is partnership, not subordination. Egypt is subordinate to no one. Fixed principles do not change. We are open and even-handed with everyone. We maintain firm strategic relations and strive to develop them. These are relations of partnership based on the exchange of interests and opinion and mutual respect. In our meetings with world leaders, we give others the chance to understand what is happening in Egypt and the region. Events that have taken shape in the region have proven the soundness of the Egyptian vision and the concerns we raise, which were previously not understood or accepted. Now, what we were saying has been proven right, so confidence in Egyptian policy is growing by the day, and cooperation with us is growing with time. This is decisive in increasing awareness of our policy and the facts of the situation in the region. I say with full clarity that in the last two years, no one has been able to dictate anything to us. Egyptian national decision-making is absolutely independent. I’m telling you that since the announcement on 3 July 2013 when I was defence minister, I swear to God we took no one’s permission, informed no one and coordinated with no one about what the popular will decided and declared that day.” Al-Sisi was referring to nationwide protests against the rule of then president Mohamed Morsi.

Discussing developments in the Middle East peace process, the president said that Egypt has taken a firm stance to support all efforts to resolve an extremely complicated issue. He said that Egypt continues to support all efforts in recent years to the present day. The president said that Egypt’s relations with the Palestinians and Israelis allow it to play a pivotal role in finding an exit. He also revealed in the interview that Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his readiness to meet with the Palestinian president and the Israeli prime minister in Moscow for direct talks. Al-Sisi called on the various Palestinian parties to embark on national reconciliation, to move towards the establishment of the long-awaited Palestinian state. Al-Sisi said that Israelis are increasingly convinced of the importance of peace, “which is a positive sign”.

On the situation in Syria, Al-Sisi said, “The problem with the situation in Syria is that it’s a country where visions and interests intersect in one way or another. There are many parties involved in the issue. I think that American-Russian understandings and the flexibility of regional parties who have direct interests in Syria could lead to a way out of this crisis. This requires time. The Egyptian stance is based on five basic principles: respect for the unity of Syrian territory and the will of the Syrian people; finding a peaceful political solution to the crisis; disarming militias and extremist groups; rebuilding Syria and activating state institutions.”

Regarding his prior warning about terrorism moving into Libya to make it a launching pad for extremist groups targeting Egypt and the northern Mediterranean, the president said that as terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq face pressure due to inroads there, they move to Libya. He added that Egypt had been monitoring the movements of terrorist groups for several months. He said that Egypt strongly supports the Libyan state and national army and is helping to train elements with the Libyan national army. He also said that Libyans are convinced that Egypt’s army is a national one, not a tribal or sectarian army.

On relations with Africa, Al-Sisi said, “We’ve started a new era in Africa to develop relations with African nations, especially Nile Basin states, in every field. All nations have great esteem for the Egyptian role, especially our reasonable stance on the matter of the Renaissance Dam.” The president said that negotiations on technical studies for the Renaissance Dam and tripartite cooperation with Sudan and Ethiopia are proceeding in a way reassuring to all. “The reactions must be calm and confident because the Nile will keep flowing into Egypt, and they support this.”

Concerning the development of relations with Washington, President Al-Sisi said, “Egyptian-American relations are strategic relations based on fixed principles honoured by both parties. We in both countries are interested in giving ourselves the chance to review our positions. The facts of the situation in Egypt have become apparent to them over the last three years. It has become clear how balanced and rational the Egyptian stance and our policy are and our concern for these relations.” The president said that Egypt is in contact with all elite and political circles in American society before the US presidential elections in November.

On relations with Russia, President Al-Sisi stressed that ties are “deep” and “strong”. Of a special nature, these relations have historic, political and economic dimensions. The plane incident has had no negative impact on relations, but there were circumstances that both countries considered. We understand the Russian position, the sensitivity of the position of the Russian leadership, and their concerns for their citizens. Russian tourism will return very soon.”

On 31 October last year a bomb detonated aboard a Russian passenger plane taking off from the Egyptian resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, killed all 224 people on board.

Speaking of the final agreement for the construction of the Dabaa nuclear plant, Al-Sisi said that negotiations are underway now on minor points. He said that the two countries should sign the final agreement this year.

Al-Sisi thanked the Italian prime minister and his positive remarks on Egypt, saying that the Italians value our cooperation with them and our concern to bring the truth to light in the Regeni case.

Giulio Regeni was an Italian graduate student whose body was found in a ditch on the outskirts of Cairo in February this year.

“I’d like to note my regard and gratitude to the Italian prime minister and his positive statements,” the president said. “The Italians appreciate our cooperation with them and our interest in bringing the truth to light. We sympathise with the family of the Italian student. The investigating bodies in the two countries are cooperating on the matter. Visits by popular delegations have helped to clarify Egyptian-Italian cooperation. Although investigations in the case continue, some media played a role in complicating the case.”

Al-Sisi, as usual, did not want to engage in a battle of words with Turkish officials, especially President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has repeatedly attacked Al-Sisi. “We’re giving them time to correct their positions and statements, but there is nothing new in relations,” Al-Sisi said. “We respond objectively if the matter requires a response. Not everything deserves a response. In relations between states, there must be an appropriate level of statements and treatment. For me, I want to reflect the authenticity, culture and civilisation of Egypt in dealing with the other (Turkey). Egyptians have come to understand that. As for relations between the two peoples, there are no reasons for hostility. We in Egypt have no sectarian or communal tendencies and we act in a way befitting Egypt.”

In the interview, Al-Sisi pointed to two important events he will attend in September: the G20 Summit in China and the UN General Assembly session. On the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, Al-Sisi said, “Egypt will be concerned with making the voice of African countries and developing countries in general heard, and with seeing the summit achieve the hoped-for results in terms of offering effective support to these countries in their aspirations to achieve the international sustainable development goals of 2030, including facilitating technology transfers to developing states, promoting foreign investment in them and facilitating the entry of their products and services in the markets of developed states. The developed states must also honour their pledges in the framework of the Paris Agreement on climate change, to reduce the negative impact of harmful emissions in developing states, and enable them to increase their reliance on renewable energy sources, including with modern, environmentally friendly technology. During the summit, Egypt will present its vision on international economic issues on the agenda, most importantly how to coordinate international policies, open new paths to growth and promote international trade and investment as a means of getting past the global economic slowdown and avoiding a new recession. There is also the question of how to benefit from the opportunities offered by digital and innovative industrial technology to spur global economic growth, and the challenges facing the global energy sector.”

On the UN General Assembly session, Al-Sisi said, “This time the goal of the visit is to affirm the truth of the Egyptian vision on the most important issue facing the world, which is extremism and terrorism, especially since Egypt occupies a non-permanent seat on the Security Council and heads the counter-terrorism committee.”

In the second part of his published dialogue with the three editors-in-chief President Al-Sisi focussed on domestic conditions. With a considerable degree of candour he spoke of the weight of responsibility when considering different options for addressing the extraordinary challenges that have accumulated and proliferated over the course of many years. But in shouldering such a burden, the president said he was keen on promoting a vision for the future based on the concept of “collective responsibility” shared by all Egyptians in the framework of a strong “national bloc” with its sights set on building a new future.

Al-Sisi said he believes that the Egyptian people possess remarkable powers of understanding and discernment. This belief was confirmed in the mass demonstrations against the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 and has shaped his vision ever since. He also believes that there is strong grassroots support for the government but that certain parties or agencies are working to destroy this “popular backing” through malicious propaganda instruments. “Nevertheless, the people’s powers of comprehension and perspicacity will protect this country from falling into the trap of that satanic propaganda”.

On the economy, he indicated that he proceeds from the premise that partial solutions will only complicate the situation and make it even harder for the government and its agencies to sustain all these burdens in the future.

In this second part of his dialogue, the president sought to convey a number of succinct messages to the middle class. At many points in his conversation and in the course of his remarks on the reform programme, he referred to pensioners, electricity bills, community housing projects, health insurance and the role played by national mega-projects in reducing unemployment. In the latter regard he praised the role of the Armed Forces as “the partner in the success” of national projects. Simultaneously, he expressed his esteem for the valuable part that Egyptian civil society plays in sponsoring projects targeting the poor and limited income. He noted that such activities embody the important value that he mentioned at the beginning of the meeting: the collective responsibility of the Egyptian people in the process of building their future.

Returning to the question of support for the government and its policies, Al-Sisi said, “There is no political party backing for the government, which is unprecedented, but there is a popular backing and this creates unanimity and consensus. Currently there are attempts to weaken this and undermine its efficacy preparatory to achieving ends that could have been attained during the past five years. The aim is to divide the national bloc in order to weaken it. Yes, I am a fighter. But the backing of the fighter and his source of support is his people… he will continue to fight as long as the people are behind him. If they abandon him, he cannot fight. The fighter has pride, a sense of honour, dignity. These are his ammunition. He cannot sustain the fight if these are taken away from him… what is important is that we confront the challenge together, as a solid national bloc, and that we remain patient until the Egyptian experience matures and succeeds. I would like to register here all my esteem and respect for the awareness of the Egyptian people who have revealed an astounding ability to comprehend, evaluate and process. In spite of all attempts to numb that awareness and to falsify the facts, the Egyptian people have demonstrated a great awareness, thanks to the fusion generated by the amazing Egyptian civilisational, humanitarian and mental legacy.”

In view of questions stirred last week by the recent agreement with the IMF over a $12 billion loan, the president was keen to address the subject. “Firstly, we need to distinguish between the economic reform programme and the IMF. It is not suitable for a country such as Egypt to have a guardian telling it how to make reforms. What happened with the IMF is common practice everywhere in the world. Governments present a programme and discuss it with the IMF. We presented ours and they added nothing to it. We are capable of designing our own programmes and identifying the tough decisions to take. We have experts and specialists who can chart the course for reform. The problems of the economic situation are not unknown to us. What matters is whether or not we take the decisions needed to reform. Do we want reform or don’t we? Reform measures should have been taken many years ago. Instead, the problem was treated with partial solutions. Today, we no longer have the time to procrastinate. Circumstances do not permit if we do not want the situation to grow even more difficult.”

The president then turned to the problem of balancing the budget. “Like every country, Egypt has revenues and expenditures. There is no problem with expenditures when you have revenues to cover them. The problems arise when you do not. Then countries begin to borrow in order to close the gap between revenues and expenditures or to reduce the budget deficit. The greater the gap, the greater the burdens on the budget due to the interests on the loan or what they call loan servicing. This might be acceptable for a while until economic circumstances improve and flaws are eliminated.”

The president went on to explain that before the January 2011 Revolution, the domestic get stood at LE800 billion or the equivalent of 75 per cent of GDP. Today it stands at LE2.3 trillion or 97 per cent of GDP. “If we suppose that the national budget is about LE850 billion and that there is a shortage of LE300 billion in order to cover expenses, then we need to compensate for that deficit by borrowing domestically.” He then pointed out that on top of the debt service payments, which come to LE300 billion a year, the government pays about LE250 billion for subsidies and another LE229 billion in public sector wages. “This does not leave much left over for spending on public services, utilities, government activities and investment credits. The perpetuation of this situation, the continuing growth in expenditures and, therefore, the mounting debt burdens put us in an extremely sensitive position. The more we borrow the more the burdens increase and the more we have to cut back spending in various fields.”

The way out of this dilemma is to decrease the budget deficit, to increase income-generating resources in industry and agriculture, and to attract investment. Towards this end, it is essential to provide the necessary infrastructure, for which “the climate is favourable”. He explained that the outlays for the construction of 7,000km of roads and around 200 bridges will come to LE100 billion by mid-June next year and that the outlays for the construction of electricity generating stations in order to solve the problem of power outages that began eight years ago will come to LE400 billion. “Infrastructure such as roads, bridges and other facilities is indispensable if we want to attract investment and establish economic projects. It is indispensable to the lives of the people. We need to imagine what conditions would be like if we didn’t build electricity generation stations in order to put an end to the power outages.”

Naturally, the private and entrepreneurial sectors have an important part to play in this developmental process. In this regard, the president said, “We need to encourage the private sector and investors to increase production and exports. Yes, there are obstacles, without a doubt. One of these is the dollar exchange rate. But we are acting in order to solve this problem within a few months. As I said, the Egyptian people will start converting the dollars they’re storing at home into Egyptian pounds after the dollar is converted into a commodity. The Egyptian people will then realise that they have an opportunity to invest their money in Egyptian pounds in banks and that this is more profitable than keeping their dollars at home.”

Al-Sisi stressed that real reform began very late and that the costs, “if we put it off further, would be too great to bear in the future”. However, he simultaneously emphasised the pains the government was taking in order to buffer the more vulnerable segments of society against the impact of reform measures. For example, he said, “The electricity subsidies have not been lifted from about three million domestic consumers apart from those whose electricity consumption exceeds 1,000kw a month. The limited income sectors receive the greatest share of subsides. There had been a suggestion to shift the burden for the three lowest electricity consumption categories on to the upper categories, but this idea was rejected as it would have placed an undue burden on the middle income sectors of society.”

One of the participants in the dialogue asked the president whether budgetary pressures would be met with a cutback in measures to realise social justice. “Where did you get that idea?” the president asked. “Over the course of two years we are building a million apartments subsided by the Social Housing Units in Cairo and the governorates. The cost of that comes to LE170 billion. We’re also building 175,000 flats for the inhabitants of the risk areas in the unplanned urban developments. A million Egyptians will benefit from this project which costs LE17 billion. Moving those families from those old areas to suitable housing estates equipped with all facilities and with playgrounds, schools and parks is a way to preserve the pride of Egypt and its people.”

The president also spoke of the project to fight Hepatitis C which aimed to bring infection rates in Egypt down to the international average. “We have already completed treating those that have already applied to the Ministry of Health,” Al-Sisi said, noting that 800,000 people had received treatment. He added, “People got together and supported each other in that marvellous Egyptian way in order to cure people infected with virus C. As a result, the number of cases has declined greatly and we hope to declare Egypt free of this illness by 2018.”

The president turned to another issue. “But let me ask you this: Why has no one inquired about the fate of the Egyptians who have returned from Libya, the vast majority of whom are simple folk? They have been absorbed in the mega projects. These gave them the means to earn a dignified living instead of them becoming an additional burden by joining the ranks of the unemployed. It is sufficient here to say that the mega-projects have already helped to reduce unemployment from 13.8 to 12.5 per cent and to increase growth rate to around 4.5 per cent. This is not just because of the construction industries. We have factories, roads, ports and services in those projects. Here, we need to praise Egyptian civil society organisations and associations for the effective role they played in working with the government to help the limited income, towards which end they have spent large sums of money.”

The president also asked, “Do you know the specific details about the national food programme? This programme envisages the construction of 100,000 greenhouses for agricultural production that will generate 500,000 job opportunities. There is another programme to create a vast animal production farm that will house a million heads of livestock by 2018.”

Because the New Administrative Capital has created some doubts and criticism, President Al-Sisi was keen to defend the project. He explained that the aim in building the New Administrative Capital, as well as the new cities in Al-Alamein, in the Suez Canal area and in Upper Egypt, was to create breathing space for the urban masses by means of appropriate urban planning in areas that have no connection with agricultural land. The purpose of the Administrative Capital is to alleviate the pressures that are mounting on Cairo day after day. “If we consider that the new cities will cover 1.2 billion square metres of land worth more than LE1.2 trillion, we should also consider that all the mega-projects, including road construction, electricity generating stations and port construction projects, had initially been estimated to cost LE1.4 trillion, but that we succeeded in bringing the cost down to LE 1.040 trillion thanks to sound resource management, discipline and careful follow through. In other words, the value of the land that we have added to the assets of the state with the new capital and other new cities comes to more that the costs of the projects were are carrying out.”

The involvement of the Armed Forces in mega-projects has drawn some criticism and concerns that this is cramping the activities of private and public sector companies. Are such concerns legitimate?

President Al-Sisi responded, “Firstly, army men are not construction workers; they’re fighters. Secondly, the role of the Armed Forces is to direct the work of the public and private sector contracting companies. The army is not a construction firm but it is the mind that directs the work and oversees its execution in accordance with a set schedule and with the aim of completing the work as quickly as possible, with the highest quality and at the lowest cost. It is sufficient to say that 2,000 private sector and public works sector companies are engaged in the projects that are being carried out in Egypt under the supervision of the Armed Forces. The Suez Canal tunnels that are being dug at Ismailia and Port Said are being carried out by a conglomeration of public and private sector companies with the collaboration of German expertise. The Armed Forces review the work of the contractors. No project can be considered complete until it has been thoroughly inspected for the soundness of its execution by administrative oversight and engineering committees, the military technical college, and other concerned agencies. We should also bear in mind that the allocations for the Armed Forces in the national budget come to only 2 per cent to 2.5 per cent of GDP, which is the lowest ratio of such budgetary allocations in the region. The activities of the Armed Forces and the modernisation of its weapons systems come from outside the national budget. It derives from savings accumulated over the past 25 years by means of a spending control policy that had its sights set on making the necessary funds available for the army’s plans for development, training and armaments without putting pressure on the national budget.”

In the third and last part of the interview, President Al-Sisi affirmed that 300 youths would be released from prison within the coming days. He stressed the need for political forces, political parties and civil society organisations help in the process of equipping young people to play an effective role in the current phase. He also reiterated his call for the renovation of religious rhetoric in order to fight violence, extremism and terrorism “that uses an Islamic facade, even though the Islamic faith is innocent of the practices of those who exploit religion for their own ends”. He also spoke of the role of the media with regard to what he stressed was the national and professional duty of the press to report the facts, to put paid to rumours and to raise public awareness. These, he said, are the essential functions of all professionals in the media.

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