One of President Donald Trump’s favorite Middle Eastern dictators, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, just gave a hell of an interview to 60 Minutes — one so controversial that his government tried to stop it from airing.
In the Sunday interview with CBS correspondent Scott Pelley, Sisi uttered a series of lies and half-truths about his government’s gross human rights violations, and confirmed for the first time that Egypt’s military is working closely with Israel in the Sinai Peninsula.
Looking visibly uncomfortable at moments, Sisi, who seized power from the country’s democratically elected leader in 2013 after a wave of popular protests, deflected several pointed questions about his government’s repressive tactics.
For example, when Pelley asked him directly about the high number of prisoners of conscience in Egypt’s prisons, Sisi denied that they existed.
“Mr. President, the organization Human Rights Watch says that there are 60,000 political prisoners that you’re holding today as we sit here,” Pelley pressed.
“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,” Sisi said, referring to members of deposed president Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood party, which Sisi’s government has designated a terrorist organization.
Why is U.S. tax money aiding a leader accused of the worst abuses in Egypt’s modern history? Scott Pelley sits down with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi for an interview the leader didn’t want you to see. https://t.co/GIcxF6sNB7 pic.twitter.com/Xtsf4srQfw— 60 Minutes (@60Minutes) January 7, 2019
Pelley also raised the issue of the horrific 2013 Rabaa massacre, in which Egyptian security forces gunned down more than 800 protesters in a matter of hours. Human Rights Watch’s executive director Kenneth Roth has described the event as “a violent crackdown planned at the highest levels of the Egyptian government,” and “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history.”
Sisi, however, denied responsibility, saying that the Human Rights Watch report was inaccurate and that thousands of protesters were armed. However, Egyptian media reported at the time that only 16 or 17 weapons were found at the protest encampment. “Whenever there is an armed confrontation with a big number of people, it’s difficult to control the situation and to decide who killed whom,” Sisi said.
Egypt’s president also admitted for the first time publicly that his government is working closely with Israel’s military to wipe out a growing insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula, confirming that Egypt has a “wide range of coordination with the Israelis.”
The New York Times first reported the secret alliance in February of last year. Israel and Egypt have a complicated and sometimes contentious history, and many have speculated that Sisi’s public admission of the military cooperation with Israel was the reason Egypt tried to block the interview from being aired.
Sisi may have committed crimes against humanity, but Trump still thinks he’s a stand-up guy
In the five years since he’s been in office, Sisi has presided over a security crackdown that’s left thousands dead, imprisoned tens of thousands more, and made the use of torture routine. He’s repressed free speech, undermined civil society, and ramped up a failing war ISIS-linked fighters in the Sinai.
Throughout it all, he’s blamed unrest on the supporters of former president Mohamed Morsi and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood party, which Egypt has now designated a terrorist group.
Andrew Miller, a national security official who served under President Barack Obama, was also interviewed in the same 60 Minutes segment and called Sisi’s government the most repressive in modern Egyptian history.
“Since Sisi took office, living standards have declined. The country is crumbling. The insurgency problem in the Sinai has only gotten worse. It’s backed by the Islamic State, entering its sixth year. And you’ve seen the mass incarceration of peaceful activists alongside hardened jihadists, which threatens to turn more Egyptians to terrorism. That seems to be a recipe for the very instability that Sisi claims he’s preventing,” Miller said.
However, this hasn’t seemed to have a significant effect on Egypt’s relationship with the US. Egypt remains the second biggest recipient of US aid after Israel, and President Donald Trump has hosted Sisi at the White House, referred to him as a “fantastic guy” — and even complimented him on his shoes for good measure.
A few hours before the interview on Sunday, President Trump praised Sisi on Twitter, writing that he was “moving the country to a more inclusive future!”
Excited to see our friends in Egypt opening the biggest Cathedral in the Middle East. President El-Sisi is moving his country to a more inclusive future!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 6, 2019
It’s probably safe to say that many, many Egyptians — like the families of the 60,000 political prisoners, for example — would beg to differ.