A two-day Arab-European summit finished in Egypt yesterday with President Abdel Fattah El Sisi making an impassioned and angry defence of his country’s human rights record.
Addressing a news conference, Mr El Sisi appeared to have been incensed by a question on whether the summit at the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh had discussed Egypt’s widely criticised human rights record.
Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit volunteered to answer, saying that although human rights were discussed generally, there was no mention of any specific nation’s record.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker denied that human rights had not been discussed. He said the issue was raised behind closed doors in bilateral meetings between leaders, but did not identify the countries involved.
Mr El Sisi, who since 2013 has overseen the largest crackdown on dissent in Egypt’s modern history, was not so diplomatic. He repeated what he has said since coming to power in 2014, but the manner in which he spoke, and the high-profile forum at which he delivered his remarks, gave them added significance.
“We are two different cultures. Two regions, each with its own set of circumstances. The priority in European nations is to give people prosperity; our priority here is to safeguard our nations and prevent them from collapsing or plunging into ruin,” said Mr El Sisi, whose government has been struggling to contain a militant insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula while trying to revive Egypt’s economy.
“Please, when you speak about the reality in our country, don’t do that in isolation of the rest of the region and what is happening there. That is not to say we condone breaking the law or violating human rights,” he said.
"Take this city [Sharm El Sheikh] – it will take one terror attack to turn it into a ghost city for three or four years," he said. Turning to criticism of capital punishment in Egypt – 15 people convicted of terrorist-related crimes were executed this year – he said families of the victims of terrorist attacks demand retribution, which was delivered with due legal process.
“You will not teach us humanity ... you must respect our values and ethics,” Mr El Sisi said, raising his voice and winning applause from Egyptian journalists covering the conference.
As the head of Egypt’s army, Mr El Sisi led the military’s 2013 removal of Mohammed Morsi, the Islamist president elected a year earlier whose rule proved divisive.
Mr El Sisi assumed office the following year after being elected in a landslide victory. He won a second four-year term last year, after he ran virtually unopposed.
This month, Egypt’s parliament, packed with Mr El Sisi’s supporters, began proceedings to make changes to the constitution that would give him the possibility of staying in office another 15 years, enshrine a political role for the military and give the president virtual control over the judiciary.
In the past five years, Egypt has jailed thousands of Islamists, mostly Morsi supporters, along with secular, pro-democracy activists behind the 2011 uprising that toppled long-time leader Hosni Mubarak.
The authorities have also blocked hundreds of independent online news outlets and silenced most critics in the media, which is now largely under government control.
Mr El Sisi, who said his priorities are the economy and security, embarked on an ambitious economic reform programme that is winning praise in the West and pressed ahead with huge infrastructure projects and the construction of new cities.
“Nations are not built by bloggers,” he said in defence of the detention of local social media influencers who were critical of his rule.
His outburst yesterday may have, to some degree, shifted focus away from the highly symbolic yet important gathering of Arab League and EU leaders. The two sides discussed methods to fight terrorism together and deal with illegal migration.
As expected, no concrete actions or resolutions emerged from the talks, and Mr El Sisi acknowledged that there were differences on important issues. However, what had been agreed on “may have gone beyond expectations,” he said.
“I am sure that you’ll agree with me that the measure of success will not be what has been discussed but rather how it turns into a new stage in deepening co-operation between our two regions,” he said.
European Council President Donald Tusk was also cautiously upbeat about the prospect of increased co-operation between Europe and the Arab League.
“I believe this is just the beginning of a new chapter of co-operation. It’s time we got serious about partnership,” Mr Tusk said. “As neighbours, we have no alternative to working together.”