Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

What do the presidents of Egypt and Iran, two countries across the Sunni-Shiite chasm in the Middle East, have in common? A lot, it turns out, including preoccupation with their internal stability and hunger for economic growth.

Both talk about moderation, and the deep resources of their ancient cultures, even as the region’s sectarian war rages. They claim to want greater human rights but insist that their systems can change only gradually. They seem to worry most about security — the specter of terrorism and turmoil that lies just across their borders.

The annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly offers a chance to meet these visiting leaders as if it were a neighborhood stroll. I interviewed Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi for an hour at his hotel and then joined a group meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani a half-dozen blocks away. Sissi’s comments were on the record; Rouhani spoke off the record but he expressed similar views in public comments.

One takeaway is the central role the United States still plays in global affairs, whatever its domestic political problems or its foreign rivals. The world has only one superpower, and Sissi and Rouhani, along with dozens of other leaders, come to New York in September to engage a U.S.-led global system. Also whirling through New York this week was America’s tireless secretary of state, John F. Kerry. His recent frustrations in negotiating a Syria peace deal are a reminder that even for a superpower, diplomacy alone doesn’t suffice.

The conversation with Sissi was a chance to assess a leader who has been something of a mystery, even to his closest Arab allies. He talks about reforming Egypt but describes the morass of subsidies, bureaucracy and political inertia that has blocked previous Egyptian leaders. Sissi was soft-spoken, dignified — and prickly on questions of human rights. He was most animated in talking about the fragility of the Egyptian state, which clearly preoccupies him.

“What we are living in is a pseudo-state, a shadow of a state,” he said, echoing comments he made in Egypt in May. His goal is a “competent and capable country” with a modern infrastructure, faster economic growth and, eventually, broader human rights. He described an Egypt still dizzy from the 2011 revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. “A country like Egypt needs stability, it needs security,” he said. He warned that “collapse of the state” could turn Egypt into a nation of refugees like nearby Syria.

Internal stability is the rationale that authoritarian leaders often use for curtailing rights. When I asked why Egypt couldn’t be like India and Brazil, two developing nations that have experienced rapid growth and also growing democracy and human rights, Sissi answered that a country like India has had decades of political stability on which to build, while his reform efforts are only two years old.

Sissi expressed frustration with the state subsidies that economists for decades have criticized. He said Egypt has 7 million public-sector employees performing work that could be done by just 1 million, and that public-sector salaries had more than doubled since the 2011 revolution and its demand for social justice. Critics might focus on Egypt’s human rights record, Sissi said, but he worries about jobs, food and housing.

“You would be unfair to me and Egypt’s circumstances if you keep looking at us through an American lens,” he argued. Point taken. But if Sissi really wants to energize Egypt, he surely needs to revive its political and economic dynamism — in a freer and more open country.

Rouhani’s public statements here were sharp-edged. In his Thursday U.N. speech, he told regional rival Saudi Arabia to “cease and desist from divisive policies” and criticized U.S. “lack of compliance” with promises in last year’s nuclear deal to open trade to Iran.

But Rouhani is a subtle politician. He knows that his moderate approach, which led to the nuclear deal, is still popular with Iranian voters. And he sees Iranian military involvement in Syria and Iraq as a necessary buffer against the Islamic State, which might otherwise have captured Damascus and Baghdad.

For Rouhani and Sissi both, foreign policy begins with the imperative of domestic security. Iran had its revolution 37 years ago; Egypt’s is just five years past. Neither country will grow and prosper without more freedom to empower its citizens. That’s why American pressure on human rights, no matter how much it annoys these two leaders, is ultimately in their countries’ interest.

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