CAIRO, EGYPT - Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, the general who ousted an elected Islamist president and is set to become Egypt's next head of state, called on the United States to help fight jihadi terrorism to avoid the creation of new Afghanistans in the Middle East.
In his first interview with an international news organization in the run-up to the May 26-27 vote, Sissi called for the resumption of U.S. military aid, worth $1.3 billion a year, which was partially frozen after a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.
Asked what message he has for U.S. President Barack Obama, Sissi said: “We are fighting a war against terrorism.”
“The Egyptian army is undertaking major operations in the Sinai so it is not transformed into a base for terrorism that will threaten its neighbors and make Egypt unstable. If Egypt is unstable then the entire region is unstable,” said a quietly spoken Sisi, wearing a dark civilian suit.
“We need American support to fight terrorism, we need American equipment to use to combat terrorism.”
He said neighboring Libya, which has descended into chaos following the Western-backed uprising that toppled Muammar Gadhafi, was becoming a major security threat to Egypt with jihadis infiltrating across the border to fight security forces.
Sissi said the West must understand that terrorism would reach its doorstep unless it helped eradicate it.
“The West has to pay attention to what's going on in the world - the map of extremism and its expansion. This map will reach you inevitably,” he said.
Syria new Afghanistan?
In a sideswipe at Western policy on Syria, where U.S. and European support for rebels fighting for three years to bring down President Bashar al-Assad has seen a proliferation of jihadism and the fragmentation of the country, Sissi stressed the need to maintain the unity of Syria.
“Otherwise we will see another Afghanistan,” he said. “I don't think you want to create another Afghanistan in the region.”
Islamists and the Egyptian state are old enemies. Militants assassinated President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981 because of his Camp David 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Ousted president Hosni Mubarak also survived assassination attempts by jihadis.
Some of the world's most radical militants are Egyptian, including al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri.
Sissi said the army was forced to intervene by a popular uprising against the Brotherhood's partisan rule.
“The more time passes the more the vision gets clearer to everyone. People and the world realize what happened in Egypt was the will of all of the Egyptian people,” said Sissi at a hotel partly owned by the army.
“The army could not have abandoned its people or there would have been a civil war and we don't know where that would have taken us. We understand the American position. We hope that they understand ours.”
The Brotherhood was banned as a terrorist organization in December. Former president Mohamed Morsi, ousted in July after mass protests, is facing capital charges, while the group's spiritual guide, Mohamed Badie, has been sentenced to death along with hundreds of supporters among the Brothers.
The past nine months have also seen a rekindling of jihadi insurgency in the lawless Sinai peninsula with numerous lethal attacks on targets in Egypt's cities. Several hundred policemen and soldiers were killed in attacks last year after the government killed hundreds of Morsi's supporters in August in the bloodiest crackdown in Egypt's modern history.
Sissi, treated as a savior in a personality cult that grew after his overthrow of Morsi last July, says he is conscious of the challenges facing Egypt after more than three years of turmoil since the overthrow of Mubarak.
But he dismisses the idea of a U.S.-style 100 days policy blitz to give Egyptians the bread, freedom, security and social justice they yearn for.
“The truth is one hundred days is not enough. The challenges present in Egypt are so many,” Sissi said. “I believe that within two years of serious, continuous work we can achieve the type of improvement Egyptians are looking for.”
Political turmoil and violence have hammered Egypt's economy, which the government forecasts will grow only up to 2.5 percent in this fiscal year. The Egyptian pound has hit record lows, weakened by the absence of foreign investors and tourists.
“We have to admit that the economic situation in Egypt is difficult, and not just over the last three years. Egyptians were aspiring to a more stable life than the reality we are living in. More than 50 percent of the Egyptian people suffer from poverty. There is a lot of unemployment,” said Sissi.
Gulf states poured billions of dollars in aid into Egypt to prop up the economy after Sissi toppled the Brotherhood. Sissi would not predict when Egypt would no longer need that aid but said Egypt needed to stand on its own feet.
“We don't see this as a good thing, frankly, and hope it ends as soon as possible.”
He said relations between Egypt and Israel, which have a peace treaty together, have been stable for more than 30 years despite many challenges.
“We respected it (the peace treaty) and we will respect it. The Israeli people know this ... The question of whether we would be committed to the peace treaty is over with,” he said.
Egypt, which has mediated between Palestinians and Israelis, was ready to help revive deadlocked peace talks.
“We need to see a Palestinian state. We need to move on peace, which has been frozen for many years. There will be a real chance for peace in the region. We are ready to play any role that will achieve peace and security in the region,” he added.
Election victory seen
Sissi is expected to easily win the election this month. The only other candidate is leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi.
If Sissi is elected president he will become the latest in a line of Egyptian rulers drawn from the military since the army toppled the monarchy in 1952 - a pattern briefly interrupted by Morsi's one year in office.
Underscoring the military's longstanding hostility to the Brotherhood, Sissi said the group had become irrelevant in Egyptian society and ruled out any reconciliation with the oldest and most powerful Islamist movement in the Middle East.
“They lost their connection with Egyptians,” Sissi said, accusing them of violence, which the group denies.
“Unjustified violence towards Egyptians made them not only lose sympathy among Egyptians, but also meant they have no real chance of reconciliation with society.”
An Islamist insurgency has been growing since Morsi's overthrow. Sissi says there have been two plots to kill him.
The world knew little of Sissi, Mubarak's head of military intelligence, before he appeared on TV on July 3 to announce the removal of Morsi after massive protests by those who accused him of exceeding his powers and mismanaging the economy.
In a country where protests have helped oust two presidents in three years, Sissi must deliver quick results, especially for the economy, which suffers from a weak currency, high unemployment, a bloated public sector and a widening budget deficit.
Aside from security cooperation with the West to fight Islamist extremism, Sissi said Washington's aspiration to usher in democracy to Egypt and elsewhere could be done through economic and educational cooperation, by granting scholarships and creating projects that could resolve youth unemployment.
“You want to create democracy in many countries. This is a good thing but it won't succeed in the way it is needed except through good economic support and proper support for education.”
“Are you ready to open your countries for us for more education that won't be expensive, to send the intelligent ones among our children to be educated in your countries, to see and learn. This is a way of developing and supporting democracy.”
“Democracy is not only to educate the youth but to create an appropriate atmosphere to make this democracy work. Are you ready for this? Are you ready to provide opportunities in a country like Egypt for people to work so that poverty eases?”
The 59-year-old field marshal also urged Western countries to ease restrictions they imposed on Egyptian and other Arab students following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States which were carried out by al Qaeda members who were mostly Arabs.
“We will send... our best youths to go and see and learn and return to us with science and culture. We want the students who cannot pay to get an excellent education so they become the society's elite and can then lead it,” said Sissi, who comes from a poor family but studied in the U.S. and Britain as part of Egypt's military training program with the West.