President Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s meeting with representatives of “civil society” was aired live on TV yesterday. During the meeting, which lasted over 90 minutes, El Sisi reiterated he was never a member of the Ikhwan and said both he and the armed forces had consistently tried to work with former President Mohamed Morsi in good faith. He added that the military is only willing to “act” if the people will it, even if the move is against him personally.
Economically, El Sisi pledged the price of basic goods will be held stable, despite exchange rate volatility. “The military and the government are responsible, that’s a promise,” he said. The state is also involved actively in megaprojects, including farms, fisheries, and agriculture initiatives. Over the next two years, 50% of all rural villages will be connected to clean water and sewage networks, El Sisi pledged. He also added that German and French investors are looking to expand in Egypt, but that FDI will not really rebound unless security and stability are restored nationwide.
Evil thoughts: In “such a challenging economic situation we could have had ‘evil thoughts’,” El Sisi said. In remarks that have so-far gone largely unreported, he also hinted that he strongly considered sending troops into Libya, saying Egypt “refrained” from “attacking a foreign country” to avenge the murder of Egyptian citizens and avail itself of the nation’s natural resources.
On the issue of the Tiran and Sanafir islands, the president expressed his desire to end the issue once and for all. The islands are Saudi’s, he said, adding that he would never give up “a grain of sand” that is Egyptian. "Egypt does not sell its land to anyone, and it does not take anyone’s land … I brought you here to reassure you about the man to whom you entrusted your land and honor. I did not take the issue personally … Please let’s not talk about this issue again," El Sisi added. He made the situation less clear-cut by saying that a parliamentary committee will be assessing the demarcation agreement with Saudi Arabia and also noted that the whole situation made him “happy” as Egyptians showed remarkable concern over the sovereignty of their land.
As for the Giulio Regeni case: “We express our condolences to his family … but want to stress that the investigation is still ongoing … and that we have an ‘Egyptian son’ who went missing in Italy,” El Sisi said. The investigation into Regeni’s murder is being handled with the “utmost transparency,” he said, blaming some Egyptians for spreading “lies” and “allegation-mongering", thereby embarrassing Egypt internationally. He also praised the historically strong relations between Italy and Egypt.
On human rights, the president emphasized the sanctity of freedom of speech and its status as a right for all. However, he issued a stern warning on the use of social media and the “evil forces in it”. El Sisi said he was ready to review the nation’s prisons and release all those found to be innocent, in the interest of striking a balance between security and human rights.
The speech has gotten very wide play in the international press, with the Guardian describing it as “often cryptic and rambling” and playing up the Regeni angle while Reuters focused squarely on the political with an emphasis on the islands and a flap over free speech caused when the president at one point refused to take a question from an MP. The Financial Times (paywall) hit the story from both Cairo and Rome, saying that the “long, defensive speech” suggested that the president was “rattled by a chorus of domestic and international criticism.” The speech, the FT said, “is unlikely to end the controversy over the death of Giulio Regeni.” The domestic emphasis of the speech, the FT quotes an Italian official as saying, “shows there’s an internal problem for him and, inside their halls of power, there is some soul-searching going on.” The Wall Street Journal has also picked up the story, while the New York Times has so far given it a pass, running with wire service coverage of the president’s remarks instead.
Al Masry Al Youm has a full review of the speech and you can watch it in full here (run time 01:32:37).