CAIRO // Egypt’s president said on Sunday that the need for a joint Arab military force “is growing and becoming more pressing every day” as the region faces the threat of extremism.
In an address to the nation on local television, Abdel Fattah El Sisi also said that both the UAE and Jordan have offered to dispatch military forces to aid Egypt following last week’s beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians by ISIL militants in Libya.
His assertion that a joint Arab military force is needed was the first public confirmation by an Arab leader that the creation of such a force was a possibility. He gave no details and did not say whether any concrete steps have been taken.
However, it was reported last November that the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait were discussing the creation of a military pact to take on extremists, with the possibility of a joint force to intervene around the Middle East.
During the almost 40-minute address, Mr El Sisi also suggested that a leaked recording in which he and aides purportedly derided powerful Gulf donors had been fabricated, after an opposition-linked television station aired the tape.
After the release of the recording earlier this month, Mr El Sisi called several Gulf leaders who had donated billions of dollars to Egypt to express his support for them.
And on Sunday he lavishly praised the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait for their multibillion dollar aid to Egypt following his predecessor Mohammed Morsi’s ouster. Mr El Sisi said the aid was “the main reason that Egypt continued to stand fast against all the challenges and difficulties it faced.”
“Our brothers in the Gulf must know very well that we view them with appreciation, respect and love,” he said.
“We must all be fully alert to the attempts being made to drive a wedge between us and our brothers.”
“Know well that we can never insult you,” he added. We are with you in the face of all the challenges that you confront.”
The former army chief said on Sunday that Egypt’s military has no interest in invading or attacking other nations, but will defend Egypt as well as the region “if required and in coordination with our Arab brothers.”
Egyptian warplanes struck ISIL positions in the eastern Libyan city of Derna early last Monday, just hours after the release of a video showing the beheadings.
Mr El Sisi said on Sunday that the warplanes struck 13 targets which had been “carefully surveyed and studied,” adding that “no one should think we attacked civilians.” He gave no further details.
He also promised to release young people who may have been wrongly jailed during Egypt’s crackdown on the opposition since he overthrew Morsi in July 2013.
The president has come under increasing criticism for the crackdown on Morsi’s supporters that has also ensnared secular dissidents, but he remains popular among Egyptians who say the country needs a firm hand.
Unlike in recent speeches, Mr El Sisi appeared relaxed in the taped address, and gently addressed some of the criticisms of his presidency.
He said journalists had complained that there were innocent people in jail, so he told them to draw up a list.
“I told them I don’t deny there might be innocent youths” in prison, Mr El Sisi said.
“Over the next few days the first group of our youths in detention will be released.”
Rights groups say that more than 20,000 people, mostly supporters of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement, have been jailed since July 2013.
He made no mention of further air strikes and did not repeat a demand for global action against the jihadists in Libya, a call which had met Western opposition.
* Associated Press and Agence France-Presse