Lally Weymouth is a senior associate editor for The Washington Post.
Since the army took power from Mohamed Morsi in 2013 with popular support, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi says he’s been fighting to keep the forces of anarchy at bay. On the eve of a large investment conference this weekend, he invited The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth to the massive white presidential palace for a conversation about Egypt’s problematic relationship with Washington, how to defeat the Islamic State, and his fears and hopes for his country. Edited excerpts follow.
Sissi: Do you remember the last time we met [in August 2013], what I said?
Yes, you said you felt the U.S. had turned its back on Egypt. What is your opinion today?
I believe we have a miscommunication. It seems we can’t convey our voice in as clear a fashion as it should be. However, the dangers surrounding this region are clear, and I believe the United States is following closely how terrorism is threatening [it].
What do you think the U.S. should do?
Support Egypt, support the popular will of the Egyptians.
Do you mean the U.S. should stand by you?
Sissi reflects the popular will of Egyptians.
In 2013, President Obama withheld
F-16s and other arms until Egypt moves toward a “sustainable, inclusive and nonviolent transition to democracy.” Your reaction?
I just want to ask, who is resorting to violence here in Egypt? Those who did not want to participate constructively in the path to democracy in the wake of the 30th June [when the Sissi-led army ousted Morsi].
You mean the Muslim Brotherhood?
[Nods.] They chose confrontation with the state. Have you seen the state of Egypt taking actions against anyone in Sinai except those who carry arms, threaten and kill members of the military and police and even innocent civilians? We are facing violence inside Sinai and on our western border with Libya and even within parts of [this] country. There is no security in Libya to prevent the flow of weapons and foreign fighters who come into Egypt and threaten our national security. Who is bombing electric grids, putting explosives at the bus and train stations? Who is killing civilians in the streets?
What is the answer?
Do you mean extremists like the Muslim Brotherhood?
The Muslim Brotherhood is the parent organization of extreme ideology. They are the godfather of all terrorist organizations. They spread it all over the world.
Are they the godfather of ISIS?
All extremists derive from one pool. This extreme mind-set is nurtured by religious rhetoric that needs to be reformed.
You made a speech on that subject on Jan. 1.
It was the truth. Religious rhetoric is a problem. It has certain ideas that just promote confused thoughts about religion when adopted by people. People resort to violence when they adopt these wrong religious ideas.
Would changing the religious rhetoric help prevent people from becoming extremists?
It is part of it, but there are other parts, such as eradicating poverty, ignorance, illiteracy, promoting cultural awareness and ensuring a quality education.
Are you buying arms from Russia?
About 50 percent of the existing military equipment in the Egyptian armed forces is already Russian equipment. We need the U.S. to clearly understand that there is a strategic vacuum in this region. There are countries that are suffering from disintegration and security collapse. . . . How can I protect my country?
What is the answer?
This requires everybody to help Egypt more. . . . We have monumental threats in the region. Only yesterday the terrorists in Libya kidnapped eight oil workers and slaughtered them. . . . And now what should the U.S. do? You are just watching.
You feel there is a vacuum of U.S. leadership?
I didn’t say that.
But do you feel that way?
Egypt has a population of 90 million. If this country fails, the whole region will slide into a cycle of anarchy that will represent a grave danger to all countries in this region, including Israel, and would extend to Europe.
How do you see the threat from Iran? Do you agree they should not have a nuclear weapon?
We understand that President Obama is engaged in a lot of actions in order to tackle this issue. We should give him time. . . . Meanwhile, we have to understand the Israeli concern.
How are Egypt’s relations with Israel right now?
We have been honoring the peace treaty with Israel since the day it was signed. . . . One example that reflects the magnitude of trust and confidence between the two parties is that the [treaty] does not allow Egyptian troops in the middle and eastern sections of the Sinai — the area that overlooks the joint border. But the Israelis said it was fine to have Egyptian troops in those areas. This means the hostile mood and skepticism have diminished with peace with Israel. This can happen with the other Arab countries and Israel if a two-state solution is reached.
You speak to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a lot?
A lot. I just want to reassure him that achieving peace [with the Palestinians] will be a historic deal for him and for Israel, and that we are ready to help reach this peace.
There have been a lot of arrests of human rights activists in Egypt, even those who once supported you. How can you create a more open environment here?
We completely uphold the right of freedom of assembly. But there is always that important balance between security and freedom of expression in countries undergoing circumstances like ours. But we are [doing] all that is needed to ensure there are no innocent people detained. Only a week ago, 120 people were released. . . . Here we have a protest law. This law does not prevent protests but regulates them.
It says protesters need permission from the Ministry of the Interior. That’s not exactly freedom of expression.
There wasn’t any instance where an application was declined.
But some of Egypt’s leading secular activists, like Ahmed Maher, founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, are now in jail. They were once your supporters.
We are not against the secular activists or against protesting or against young people speaking out loud. But it is very important for the people not to violate this rule of law.
In the U.S., people have an enormous amount of liberty to say whatever they want.
There is a difference when you want to restore the national institutions after four years of difficult circumstances and an overwhelming state of revolution that dominated the mood. Do you know how much this country needs to support 90 million people daily? [$130 million] in subsidies. Where can we get the money to provide for these needs? Who would come to invest in this country if it is not stable? We have an overwhelming unemployment rate of 13 percent.
You think the U.S. government just doesn’t understand Egypt’s needs?
You can’t get the real picture of what is going on here in our country. . . . We are an underdeveloped country. You look at Egypt with American eyes. Democracy in your country has evolved over 200 years. Just give us a chance to develop. If we rush things, countries like ours will collapse.
You’ve said the word “collapse” twice now. Is that something that concerns you?
Nobody else mentions it.
You know why? Because they have a lot of confidence in Sissi. But I am just a human being. I cannot do everything. When Somalia collapsed, didn’t the U.S. leave? Do you want Egypt to become a failed state and then you wash your hands of it?
Reportedly, the police are a problem in this country, and I’ve heard even you aren’t happy with them.
That’s right. . . . Now the Egyptian police has established a department for human rights, and it is assigned to make sure that all human rights are honored.
There are thousands in jail with no due process, no trials —
Police personnel are held accountable before the law. No one here is detained without being called into court with a due legal process.
Do you see any hope for the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in politics again?
They turned [Egyptians’] lives into a living hell. . . . Do you think a country like Egypt will become like the Taliban and destroy the pyramids? [The Brotherhood] would have gone to the pharaonic temples to try to take them down.
But you talked to former president Morsi a lot.
I advised him. But it was a mind-set. Wasn’t one year enough for you to know that these people have adopted a destructive ideology? Westerners believe that political Islam did not have a chance to be part of the political process, so [Islamists] resorted to violence. This eventually led to terrorism. This is not true. Their ideology requires them to get power but never give up power.
Who are you speaking of? Hamas? The Muslim Brotherhood?
This is just a general description of political Islam. They consider that being on top is a means to apply their own mind-set, to establish a greater Islamic state. They think that they have the absolute truth, so everybody must listen and obey. If anybody disagrees, then they should die.
Were you surprised by the ISIS beheadings?
It wasn’t a surprise because I know these people like the back of my hand.
Morsi made you minister of defense.
Why did he pick you?
He knew that I am a devout Muslim, so he thought I would be of the same mind-set. But I’m trying to be a real Muslim, who respects others and respects the freedom of the people to choose their own religious denominations or even to not believe in God in the first place.
Can ISIS be defeated?
Of course. Their thinking is against the normal course of things.
Some military experts argue that destroying ISIS requires some troops or special forces on the ground — not just an air campaign. Is a military component required?
The Iraqi troops are on the ground. But yes, it is understood that for the U.S. military to carry out their mission, they need boots on the ground. This is one important aspect of how the mission can be successful.
Can you win through an air campaign alone?
There have to be boots on the ground.
This week you’re hoping to attract more foreign investment to your country?
We have been making sure Egypt is attractive to investment through ensuring stability. This is of the utmost importance. We have been working on a legislative package to create an investment-friendly environment. . . . Egypt has gone from a negative to a stable credit rating.
Would you like to see the U.S. do more?
Yes. The U.S. is a powerful country. I always say that with might comes responsibility.
But the White House is waiting for a gesture regarding the human rights situation.
That is why the Al Jazeera journalist was released here. The two other journalists [from Al Jazeera] were released. They are still standing trial, but they are not detained. Asking the government to interfere into the judiciary system is unacceptable, regardless of how unsatisfied you are with this judicial system.
What do you worry about?
That my country will collapse. That is the only thing. Honestly, I don’t think about my own life for a second.
You are very popular.
Because the people know that I love them for real and I am a sincere person.