Interview with Egyptian President Sisi: 'Extremists Offend the Image of God'
In a SPIEGEL interview, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi discusses his country's struggles, the forceful overthrow of his predecessor Mohammed Morsi and the threat against Egypt posed by Islamic State and the Muslim Brotherhood.
SPIEGEL: Mr. President, you were preceeded in office by both Hosni Mubarak, an autocrat, and Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist. You served under each of them as a military officer. Did you ever think it possible that you might one day find yourself living here in the presidential palace?
Sisi: To be honest, no. Under normal circumstances, if I succeeded in my work, I would reach the highest echelons within the armed forces.
SPIEGEL: But it must have been clear to you when you took control after the fall of President Morsi on July 3, 2013 that the military's time had come again and that your time in the palace had come with it.
Sisi: Any sensible and rational person who knows the magnitude of the problems and challenges faced by the country would not venture into such a position.
SPIEGEL: Are you suggesting that you have sacrificed yourself?
Sisi: You are making your judgments in accordance with your own knowledge of most presidents and leaders whom you have met previously. I decided that I was ready to assume this position when I discovered that the chance to save the country was very meager. I was prepared to sacrifice myself for this country and its 90 million people. They want food, fuel and electricity and yearn for a decent life. Any president who does not pay attention to such details or is unable to provide the minimum level of stability should leave office.
SPIEGEL: Despite these concerns, are there moments in your new position that give you pleasure?
Sisi: When I see that people want to listen to me and when I feel that they are supporting the goals that I am committed to, then I am very pleased. This love of the people is a new experience for me. I had never experienced it before in my past life in the army, which involved issuing orders or carrying them out.
SPIEGEL: After 40 years spent as a member of the military, you are now in a situation in which you have to approach your opponents, seek compromise and conduct endless negotiations. Is that difficult for you?
Sisi: Any person by nature has inherent capabilities. You have to trust your instincts and act with spontaneity.
SPIEGEL: And what's the biggest difference between the two roles?
Sisi: In the armed forces, the chances of success are quite high. That's due to the clarity of the military structure -- everything is sketched out. In politics, there are many more surprises and detours, and it's a lot more unpredictable.
SPIEGEL: Mubarak continued to act like an officer even after he had become president. He issued orders to Egyptians and demanded obedience.
Sisi: He comes from a different generation. Mubarak came to power under totally different circumstances.
SPIEGEL: You landed in this office because of a coup. That's what we call it when a democratically elected president -- even a lousy one -- is toppled with force.
Sisi: Your characterization of the situation is not clear and hence your understanding is inaccurate. You judge our experiences from your own cultural, civilizational and developmental vantage point and you cannot remove yourselves from this context. You need to understand what happened in Egypt in light of the circumstances, challenges and threats faced by Egypt.
SPIEGEL: You mean the country's increasing Islamization through the Muslim Brotherhood and former President Morsi?
Sisi: What you refer to as a coup was our second revolution. What if half of the population of Germany, France or Great Britain took to the streets to demand the overthrow of the government? If these governments were to plan the use of force and there was then no intervention
SPIEGEL: you mean through the military
Sisi: then even these countries would slide into civil war. If we had not intervened, we would not have fulfilled our historical and moral responsibility.
SPIEGEL: You felt summoned by the people?
Sisi: Even if only a million people demonstrate in the streets against a ruler, he should step down. But in our region, that hasn't yet registered in the consciousness of rulers.
SPIEGEL: Instead of preventing a civil war through Morsi's dismissal, you provoked it. Hundreds died and many more were arrested.
Sisi: No. And no, hundreds of people did not have to die. I am saddened by even the loss of a single life. However, let me put this in a different context. Just look at the magnitude of the loss of life over the past 10 years in Iraq, in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Egypt's population is almost equal to that of all of these countries combined. If you look at the number of people who died, you will realize the army protected the Egyptian people.
SPIEGEL: So you're saying Egypt would have gone the route of Syria or Iraq if the military had not intervened?
Sisi: Had the army not intervened, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, would have died.
SPIEGEL: What happened on Rabaa Square was a massacre in which at least 650 Morsi supporters were killed by security forces. Those events represent an abuse of power.
Sisi: I reiterate that you are judging us based on your criteria. The number of victims at Rabaa could have been 10 times higher if the people had stormed the square. And the Egyptians were prepared to do that. The sit-ins were allowed to continue for 45 days and people had to look on as one of the main squares in our capital city was totally paralyzed. We had repeatedly called on the protesters to clear out peacefully. Would something like that be allowed in your country?
SPIEGEL: Our police would not fire live ammunition. If possible they would use tear gas or water cannons. And in our country, the interior minister would have to resign after a massacre like that.
Sisi: I am not ashamed to admit that there is a civilizational gap between us and you. The police and people in Germany are civilized and have a sense of responsibility. German police are equipped with the latest capabilities and get the best training. And in your country, protesters would not use weapons in the middle of the demonstrations to target police.
SPIEGEL: Are you suggesting that those protesters did so without any reason?
Sisi: You have to link these demonstrations by the Muslim Brotherhood with the terrorism that we are currently facing, which is guided by fundamentalist ideas. These people believe they are martyrs who will go to paradise when they die.
SPIEGEL: Human rights groups complain that the oppression during your time in office has been worse than it was under Mubarak.
Sisi: One cannot define human rights as narrowly as you do. If the Muslim Brothers manipulate people's awareness or distort their beliefs, then that is also a violation of human rights. If you are unable to receive good or even adequate education and shelter and cannot find a job and have no hope for the future, that is also a violation of your human rights. Human rights should not be reduced to freedom of expression. Even if this were the case, though, people in our country are free to say whatever they like.
SPIEGEL: You're the only person to see it that way.
Sisi: The Muslim Brotherhood had two options for dealing with us, and we had two alternatives for dealing with them. They could either rule us or kill us. And we could either kill them or bring them before the courts. We chose to put them on trial, which was the harder of the two options.
SPIEGEL: Without activists like Ahmed Maher, Mohammed Adel and Ahmed Duma, you would not be president today. Those three revolutionaries are now in jail because they violated the increased restrictions that had been imposed on Egyptians' right to demonstrate.
Sisi: Our protest law is derived from the French, German and Swiss laws that organize protests. Everyone has a right to protest through notifying the authorities to obtain permission. For the activists, this was about demonstratively violating this law. Ninety-million Egyptians want food and water. Would your country invest in us if the protests continued day and night?
SPIEGEL: Your constitution guarantees the right to freedom of assembly. And we're looking at three young revolutionaries who have been given disproportionately severe sentences. That is just as difficult to comprehend as the 183 death sentences meted out just last week to members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sisi: Egyptian law requires that maximum sentences for the penalty be issued for those tried in absentia. Besides, the ruling was only at the first level of litigation. As soon as the accused are brought before court, a retrial is ordered. I assure you that if our country wants to develop like yours, the independence of the judiciary must be respected.
SPIEGEL: We have doubts about the independence of your judiciary. Three journalists working for the Al Jazeera TV channel were imprisoned for allegedly reporting falsely about Egypt.
Sisi: Firstly, if I had been in office at the time, I would have wanted no further problems and would have asked them to leave the country. Secondly: Our judiciary is independent. It is important that the Western world does not see itself as the only one with an independent judiciary.
SPIEGEL: Then consider issuing a general amnesty.
Sisi: I never wished these problems on myself. They harm Egypt's reputation. But the situation we found ourselves in at the time was one of political turmoil and confusion.
SPIEGEL: And are you now considering issuing a general amnesty?
Sisi: Absolutely. To me, humanity means compassion and peace. Both of those two things are important values for me.
SPIEGEL: Was that also true during your time in the military?
Sisi: I have not changed. I always strive to be a better person. In all of my dealings, I am trying to be a real Muslim.
SPIEGEL: Do you feel misunderstood by the West?
Sisi: I am trying to tell you the reality. You will always look at what happened in Egypt from the vantage point of a foreigner. You will never be burned by what happens here. If things get rough, you will simply pack your bags and leave.
SPIEGEL: The Muslim Brotherhood's Morsi supposedly made you chief of staff in 2013 because you are a pious Muslim.
Sisi: I don't know the criteria by which Morsi chose me. I have never pretended I was someone else. I am a simple person and my nature is to read a lot and contemplate a lot. I was especially interested in religious discourse. We need to examine this discourse while taking into consideration the backdrop of the current state of affairs in the region. I address this issue even if it means putting my hand in the hornet's nest.
SPIEGEL: When you recently addressed scholars at the famous Azhar University, you called for religious renewal.
Sisi: This religious discourse will take a lot of time. It must emanate from the recognition that we have a problem. We are talking here about the most precious thing for Arab and Muslim countries, because religion is engrained in the hearts and minds of the people.
SPIEGEL: Do you mean a reinterpretation of the Koran or of the Islamic legal and moral code known as Sharia?
Sisi: For 1,400 years, the Koran has represented the absolute truth. But interpretations differ. I propose removing wrong and distorted ideas from the religious discourse. Two days ago, I took part in a conference attended by not only Azhar's highest authorities but also the Coptic Pope, intellectuals and politicians. The subject was "freedom of choice" and the great gift that this freedom represents. The right to choose a particular faith, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim, is an inherent part of our religion.
SPIEGEL: Does this mean Muslims should take action against those who falsely interpret their religion?
Sisi: Of course, because these extremists not only insult Islam, they also offend the image of God, the all-mighty. Their false beliefs lead many people to ask themselves: What kind of a religion is this Islam?
SPIEGEL: US President Barack Obama has assembled an international coalition to fight Islamic State extremists. But Egypt is only a symbolic partner in this alliance.
Sisi: We are a partner in this battle, but we are waging it here in Egypt. We had already begun our fight one and a half years before the formation of the coalition. If we fail in this fight against terrorism, the entire region will be embroiled in turmoil for the next 50 years. Europe will also be threatened with attacks by the extremists. I already told my European friends this, one and a half years ago.
SPIEGEL: And how did they react?
Sisi: They didn't want to believe me. They thought I was trying to justify what had happened here
SPIEGEL: for the removal of President Morsi from office. Now there is even an offshoot of Islamic State in Sinai that is threatening your country's unity.
Sisi: About 600,000 people live on the whole of Sinai, and the terrorists are only a fraction of that. They cannot threaten the unity of Egypt. They are only attracting attention because their actions are so diabolical. We are determined to fight the terrorists.
SPIEGEL: What is the greater threat: the Islamic State or the Muslim Brotherhood?
Sisi: They both share the same ideology. But the Muslim Brotherhood is the origin of all of it. All these other extremists emanated from them.
SPIEGEL: You make it sound as though Egypt would be overrun by terrorism if it weren't for you. Do the Egyptians even have the choice of an alternative to you?
Sisi: I would never stay in office against the will of the people. My ethics and patriotism do not allow me to do so.
SPIEGEL: The fact that you received 96 percent of the votes in the May 2014 election shows that the Egyptians didn't have any other option.
Sisi: I told the people from the start, I do not want to rule you. I am one of you. I am simply the person who took over the responsibility of salvaging the country and implementing the popular will.
SPIEGEL: That could take a long time.
Sisi: I was summoned by the people. I want to finish my duty in the shortest possible time. The constitution only allows for two terms in office. I hope that I can complete my duties in four years.
SPIEGEL: Do you consider parliamentary elections that are planned for March to be the last step in the roadmap to democracy?
Sisi: Indeed they are. By then we will have completed the democratic roadmap. Then Egypt will also have its three branches of government. But in order for democracy to take effect, everyone -- the people and the rulers -- need to respect the will of the other and their choices.
SPIEGEL: But the future parliament will be a weak one. The representatives of the people will not have the right to review the military's budget in detail, for example.
Sisi: Who said so? There are specialized committees in parliament that can discuss the military's budget. And by the way, we have the smallest military budget of any country in the region.
SPIEGEL: What do you expect from Germany in your development efforts?
Sisi: I'd like to first of all say how much we admire Germany for its perfection, for its discipline. In our fondness for Germany we even understand that you have misconstrued the events here because you were influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has managed to manipulate public opinion.
SPIEGEL: You can't blame all criticism on manipulation.
Sisi: I am sitting with you here today so that Germany can better understand what really happened here. I would like to see Germany and the entire West stand by Egypt. My message is this: If Egypt is stable, then Europe is also stable.
SPIEGEL: Are you hoping for specific economic aid from Berlin?
Sisi: We are hoping to receive your support in the area of education and in job creation. I have invited German Chancellor Angela Merkel to our international economic conference in Sharm el-Sheikh. I have also invited the biggest German companies. And of course we hope that more tourists will come here once again.
SPIEGEL: Relations between our countries would be considerably better if the foundations run by our political parties weren't faced with so many difficulties in your country. The foundation run by the Free Democratic Party is being threatened with closure, and the head of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Cairo was sentenced to five years imprisonment in absentia.
Sisi: We are working diligently to overcome all these pending problems so that they do not impact negatively on our relations with Germany.
SPIEGEL: And then there is also your desire for light-wheeled tanks, even though there is concern in Berlin that these vehicles could be used against protesters.
Sisi: Our army has never taken action against protesters. On the day of our revolution, Jan. 25, 2011, tanks were in the streets in order to safeguard the country. Several were attacked, and burned out. But not a single tank opened fire.
SPIEGEL: At the World Economic Forum in Davos two weeks ago, you met with Angela Merkel for the first time. The chancellor had already extended an invitation to you a while ago. Are you looking forward to visiting Germany?
Sisi: Yes, I am looking forward to the visit. When I was a young officer I was in Germany several times. I know what a beautiful country your homeland is.
SPIEGEL: By the way, is it true that the chancellor praised you in Davos as an anchor of stability?
Sisi: Yes. But to be precise: She wasn't speaking about me, but about Egypt -- as an anchor of stability in the region.
SPIEGEL: Mr. President, we thank you for this interview.
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