Since the army took power from Mohamed Morsi in 2013 with popular support, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi says he’s been fighting to keep the forces of anarchy at bay. On the eve of a large investment conference this weekend, he invited The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth to the massive white presidential palace for a conversation about Egypt’s problematic relationship with Washington, how to defeat the Islamic State, and his fears and hopes for his country. Edited excerpts follow.
Sissi: Do you remember the last time we met [in August 2013], what I said?
Yes, you said you felt the U.S. had turned its back on Egypt. What is your opinion today?
I believe we have a miscommunication. It seems we can’t convey our voice in as clear a fashion as it should be. However, the dangers surrounding this region are clear, and I believe the United States is following closely how terrorism is threatening [it].
What do you think the U.S. should do?
Support Egypt, support the popular will of the Egyptians.
Do you mean the U.S. should stand by you?
Sissi reflects the popular will of Egyptians.
In 2013, President Obama withheld F-16s and other arms until Egypt moves toward a “sustainable, inclusive and nonviolent transition to democracy.” Your reaction?
I just want to ask, who is resorting to violence here in Egypt? Those who did not want to participate constructively in the path to democracy in the wake of the 30th June [when the Sissi-led army ousted Morsi].
[Nods.] They chose confrontation with the state. Have you seen the state of Egypt taking actions against anyone in Sinai except those who carry arms, threaten and kill members of the military and police and even innocent civilians? We are facing violence inside Sinai and on our western border with Libya and even within parts of [this] country. There is no security in Libya to prevent the flow of weapons and foreign fighters who come into Egypt and threaten our national security. Who is bombing electric grids, putting explosives at the bus and train stations? Who is killing civilians in the streets?
What is the answer?
Do you mean extremists like the Muslim Brotherhood?
The Muslim Brotherhood is the parent organization of extreme ideology. They are the godfather of all terrorist organizations. They spread it all over the world.
Are they the godfather of ISIS?
All extremists derive from one pool. This extreme mind-set is nurtured by religious rhetoric that needs to be reformed.
You made a speech on that subject on Jan. 1.
It was the truth. Religious rhetoric is a problem. It has certain ideas that just promote confused thoughts about religion when adopted by people. People resort to violence when they adopt these wrong religious ideas.
Would changing the religious rhetoric help prevent people from becoming extremists?
It is part of it, but there are other parts, such as eradicating poverty, ignorance, illiteracy, promoting cultural awareness and ensuring a quality education.
Are you buying arms from Russia?
About 50 percent of the existing military equipment in the Egyptian armed forces is already Russian equipment. We need the U.S. to clearly understand that there is a strategic vacuum in this region. There are countries that are suffering from disintegration and security collapse. . . . How can I protect my country?