Middle East

Egypt's President Sisi defends sweeping security laws

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Media captionPresident Abdul Fattah al-Sisi: "I think we have seen very positive change"

President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has defended Egypt's sweeping security laws, insisting he is still taking the country on a path to democracy.

Ahead of a visit to the UK, Mr Sisi told the BBC that Egypt was threatened by extremist groups and feared the collapses suffered by its neighbours.

He underlined that Egypt's situation was different to that of Europe.

The retired field marshal led the army's overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi in 2013 following mass protests.

Since then, more than 1,000 people have been killed and 40,000 are believed to have been jailed in a crackdown on dissent.

Most of them have been supporters of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, but secular and liberal activists have also been prosecuted for breaking a 2013 anti-protest law that gives the interior ministry the power to ban any gathering of more than 10 people.

'Stability'

In an interview with the BBC in Cairo before he embarked on his first official visit to the UK, Mr Sisi said Egypt was still on a path to democracy that started with the 2011 revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, but needed time to achieve its goals.

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Image caption Mr Sisi said the low turnout in the first round of the parliamentary elections was not unexpected

"We want to carry out the will of the Egyptian people," he said. "They have been calling for change for four years. We want to honour their choice and will do our best to achieve a better democratic future for them."

"What has been achieved in our experience may not be the best, but we are going ahead with it and we will make further progress," he added.

Mr Sisi said the low turnout in the first round of the parliamentary elections last month was neither unexpected nor evidence of growing disillusionment with his rule.

He also defended the anti-terrorism legislation he enacted in August, which activists said further eroded basic rights and enshrined a permanent state of emergency.


Analysis: Lyse Doucet, BBC chief international correspondent

President Sisi knows he has a case to make to convince the West - and some in his own country - that he is taking Egypt on the road to what he calls a real democracy.

It's a case he seems confident he can make even if critics deride him as a dictator. He appears at ease fielding questions on everything from his harsh counter-terrorism law to the West's failure to stop the rise of the so-called Islamic State in his region.

The former army chief wants to dispel any impression he's still a military man who now wears a smart blue suit. But security is still clearly uppermost in his mind even as he invokes the spirit that inspired Egyptians nearly five years ago to rise up for greater freedom as well as jobs and bread.

After all, he says, if Egyptians decide they don't want him in power they can now vote him out. But he speaks with the confidence of a man who believes he will be at the helm for a while.

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"We want some stability," he explained. "We don't want to do this by force or suppression. We want to regulate and organise society."

The president said critics in the West had to appreciate the threats faced by Egypt, where jihadist militants have killed at least 600 security personnel over the past two years.

"Give me the environment in Europe to be available here in Egypt, and you will never need anything of the kind," Mr Sisi insisted.

What millions of Egyptians wanted most of all, he added, was a decent standard of living.

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Image caption Egyptian security forces are battling jihadist militants in the Sinai peninsula

"It's fine to check on human rights in Egypt. But the millions who are in difficult economic conditions - wouldn't it be better to ask about them?"

The president also stressed that the hundreds of people sentenced to death in connection with the unrest surrounding the overthrow of Mr Morsi were unlikely to be executed, either because they were convicted in absentia or due to the appeals process.

The UN has said fair-trial guarantees appear to be increasingly trampled upon in Egypt, while the Brotherhood has said the trials of its leaders and supporters are politically motivated and attempts to give legal cover to a coup.

Asked whether the Brotherhood - a group he had vowed last year to "wipe out" - could once again play a part in Egypt's future, Mr Sisi said: "They are part of Egypt and so the Egyptian people must decide what role they can play."

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Media captionSondos Asem speaks to Newsnight's Nick Hopkins about the death sentence she faces in Egypt

The president also called on the UK and other European nations involved in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 to co-operate with Egypt to secure its 1,000km (600-mile) long border with Libya and prevent the spread of extremism.

Libya is mired in a conflict between two rival governments and loose coalitions of armed factions supporting them. The security vacuum has been exploited by Islamic State (IS) and other jihadist militant groups.

"There is a threat in Libya, which we need to confront. I hope they will not take a long time [to respond]," Mr Sisi said.