Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi offered a rare acknowledgment of his close security cooperation with Israel in the Sinai peninsula during a U.S. television interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” news program broadcast on Sunday.
The program said Cairo had asked the network not to air the interview but did not give further details.
Under Sisi, Egypt has quietly cooperated with Israel on security in Egypt’s Sinai, a desert peninsula demilitarized as part of a U.S.-sponsored 1979 peace treaty between the two countries but where Cairo’s forces now operate freely.
Acknowledging such cooperation with Israel can be a sensitive topic in Egypt.
Asked whether the cooperation was the closest and deepest that he has had with Israel, Sisi responded: “That is correct.”
“The Air Force sometimes needs to cross to the Israeli side. And that’s why we have a wide range of coordination with the Israelis,” Sisi said, according to a transcript provided by CBS.
Israeli officials have publicly praised security cooperation with al-Sisi’s Egypt, which has successfully secured Israel’s permission to deploy troops, armor and helicopter gunships close to the Israeli border to fight the militants, contravening the peace treaty’s limitations on the number or troops and type of weapons Egypt can have in the region.
Since taking office in 2014, al-Sisi met at least twice with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Their meetings have received little media attention in Egypt, a country where most people still view their neighbor as their sworn enemy and where trade unions and most political parties are vehemently opposed to “normalization” of relations with Israel.
Defeating militants in the Sinai and restoring security after years of unrest has been a key promise of Sisi, who was re-elected in March last year in a landslide victory against no real opposition.
Militants have been waging an insurgency for years in the north of the peninsula, which lacks basic infrastructure and job opportunities. In contrast, the region’s southern coast is peppered with Red Sea tourist resorts.
Egyptian security forces have battled Islamist militants in the mainly desert region, stretching from the Suez Canal eastwards to the Gaza Strip and Israel, since 2013.
Asked why he had not managed to wipe the militants out, Sisi responded by pointing to the difficulties that the United States has faced in Afghanistan against the Taliban insurgency.”
Why hasn’t the U.S. eliminated the terrorists in Afghanistan after 17 years and spending a trillion dollars?”he asked.
In the five years since al-Sisi came to power in a military coup, Egyptian security forces have arrested or charged at least 60,000 people, according to Human Rights Watch.
Torture of political detainees has become widespread and endemic, and no opposition to the government is tolerated
In his interview with “60 Minutes,” Sisi denied that Egypt was holding political prisoners. CBS cited HRW estimate of 60,000 political prisoners.
“I don’t know where they got that figure. I said there are no political prisoners in Egypt,” Sisi said.
“Whenever there is a minority trying to impose their extremist ideology … we have to intervene regardless of their numbers.”