Don’t look at Egypt through a British prism, warns Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – Con Coughlin/Telegraph, UK
David Cameron will meet an avowed Anglophile when he welcomes Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for talks at Downing Street on Wednesday.
“I have fond memories of how wonderful your country is from the time I spent there,” he told me during an exclusive interview at the presidential palace in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. He even recalled how, at Christmas, he used papyrus paper he had brought with him from Cairo to make homemade Christmas cards, which he delivered to his Surrey neighbours signed simply: “With best wishes from Major Sisi.”
After the turbulent events of the past four years, Mr Sisi will today enter No 10 as his country’s president. The demands of his new post have been graphically illustrated by last weekend’s Russian plane crash in Sinai, where Islamic militants have been waging a bitter terrorist campaign against the Egyptian military.
Before leaving Cairo he condemned reports that the plane had been brought down by a missile or a bomb as “unfounded speculation”, and said that making further comment on the incident was “premature and not based on any proper facts”.
That Mr Sisi is keen to rebuild relations with Britain, though, will certainly be good news for Mr Cameron, who four years ago was an enthusiastic supporter of the so-called Arab Spring. At the height of Egypt’s anti-government protests Mr Cameron joined demonstrators in Tahrir Square, and was a prominent figure in calling for the overthrow of former president Hosni Mubarak, Mr Sisi’s former military colleague.
Despite the strong criticism Mr Sisi has attracted from campaigners in London over his crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, which briefly held power after Mubarak’s overthrow, Mr Sisi says he will not raise Mr Cameron’s previous involvement in Egyptian politics at tomorrow’s Downing Street meeting. “It is history now,” he said.
But the Egyptian president says he is determined to raise another of Mr Cameron’s North African interventions, namely the 2011 military campaign to overthrow the regime of Col Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.
“Libya is a danger that threatens all of us. If there is no government then this only creates a vacuum where extremists can prosper,” said Mr Sisi, who is critical of the British government’s involvement in the campaign to overthrow Gaddafi.
“It was a mission that was not completely accomplished. What happened was that Libya was left without the leadership when it needed our help most.”
Egypt, in common with other Arab states, is supporting UN-backed mediation efforts to form a national unity government in Libya. If it is successful, Mr Cameron is said to be giving serious consideration to sending a modest number of British troops as part of an international peacekeeping mission to help stabilise the country, and prevent it being a safe haven for people smuggling gangs.
Mr Sisi is also critical of the West’s limited military response to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) fighters in Iraq and Syria. “The map of extremism and instability is expanding and not retreating. We need to reassess our priorities. That will allow us to intensify our efforts.”
While he says he does not want to be drawn on the issue of whether Syrian president Bashar al-Assad should stand down, he says it is important not to destroy the country’s government. “We need to be very careful to keep the country’s national institutions functioning.”
Mr Sisi will be looking to boost trade ties with Britain during his visit, which he believes are vital for helping to rebuild Egypt after the turbulence of the past four years. “We need the world to understand the changes that are happening here. They reflect the will of the Egyptian people and not anyone else.” But he was critical of those who wanted to use concerns over his country’s human rights record to criticise his government.
“When Egyptians took to the streets, they did so as much because of their frustration over their standard of living as their political demands,” he said. “If we want to address the underlying problems of unrest, then it is going to cost billions of pounds. The questions is whether all those countries who criticise us over human rights are really going to help us.”
He accused Britons of looking at Egypt through their own political and cultural prism.
“We have millions of people who are very needy – isn’t it their human right to have living standards equal to those of people in Britain? We should be able to give people an education to the same level as people in Britain, the same living standards and the same medical care. Is it not a human right for millions of Egyptians to have decent jobs?”