The Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has denied his country holds any political prisoners, despite rights groups saying tens of thousands are currently detained.
In the five years since Mr Sisi came to power in a military coup, Egyptian security forces have arrested or charged at least 60,000 people, according to Human Rights Watch. Torture of political detainees has become widespread and endemic, and no opposition to the government is tolerated.
In a rare interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes, Mr Sisi appeared visibly uncomfortable, and sweated profusely in a short clip of the interview released ahead of its broadcast on Sunday. Shortly after the interview took place, CBS said it was contacted by the Egyptian ambassador and told it could not be aired.
The former defence minister denied knowledge of any political prisoners and defended the crackdown that has come to define his rule.
“I don’t know where they got that figure,” he said of the Human Rights Watch figures. “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.”
Since 2013, Mr Sisi has presided over a crackdown that is “unparalleled in Egypt’s recent history”, according to Amnesty International.
“It is currently more dangerous to criticise the government in Egypt than at any time in the country’s recent history. Egyptians living under President al-Sisi are treated as criminals simply for peacefully expressing their opinions,” said Najia Bounaim, Amnesty International’s North Africa campaigns director, last year.
A former general in the Egyptian army, Mr Sisi became defence minister in 2012 under the country’s first democratically elected president, Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, who came to power following a popular uprising against long-time leader Hosni Mubarak.
Mr Morsi’s rule was short-lived, however. Amid widespread dissatisfaction over his rule, Mr Sisi led a military coup against the president and was blamed for the massacre of nearly 1,000 Muslim Brotherhood supporters who protested the coup.
Since then he has ruled with an iron fist, and cast himself as a paternal ruler in the mould of Mubarak.
In the CBS interview, Mr Sisi also admitted that Egypt was cooperating with Israel to combat terror groups operating in the Sinai peninsula, a controversial policy for many Egyptians, who still hold animosity towards their neighbour dating back to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“We have a wide range of cooperation with the Israelis. The Egyptians are battling an estimated 1,000 Isis-affiliated terrorists on its Sinai peninsula that they have allowed the Israelis to attack by air,” he said.
Mr Sisi’s interview may have been designed to drum up support in Washington for Egypt at a time when President Donald Trump is demonstrating a willingness to draw back US involvement in the Middle East.
Egypt has received nearly $80bn (£63bn) in military aid from the US over the past 30 years, and Mr Sisi has built close relations with the Trump administration.
In September last year Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, authorised the release of $1.2bn in military assistance that was previously held up over concerns about Egypt’s human rights record.
“The CBS interview was obviously meant to be part of Cairo’s public diplomacy, directly to the American public – but if the Egyptian embassy indeed told CBS not to air it, then that’s the definition of how not to engage in public diplomacy with the American media,” Dr HA Hellyer, senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the Atlantic Council, told The Independent.
“On the contrary, the request, in and of itself, is likely to draw an audience that is far larger than it would have otherwise been,” he added.
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