Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi was hoping to demonstrate that he was a reliable ally of United States and Israel in the Middle East and worthy of international recognition, but the 60 minutes interview took another turn says Professor Seif Da’na
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
On Sunday, the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi was seen interviewed by Scott Pelley on CBS’s 60 Minutes. Two main issues were preoccupying the journalist. First, al Sisi was asked about the human rights record of the president.
SCOTT PELLEY: Mr. President, the organization Human Rights Watch says that there are 60,000 political prisoners that you’re holding today as we sit here.
ABDEL FATTAH AL SISI: [TRANSLATED] I don’t know where they got that figure. I said there are no political prisoners in Egypt. Whenever there is a minority trying to impose their extremist ideology we have to intervene, regardless of their numbers.
SCOTT PELLEY: Mr. President, your critics, critics in the United States Congress, critics within the United Nations, say that you are holding tens of thousands of political prisoners; that hundreds of people, unarmed people, have been killed in the streets of Cairo. They claim that you have blood on your hands. How do you explain all of this?
ABDEL FATTAH AL SISI: [TRANSLATED] We’re dealing with fundamentalists and extremists which cause damage, and killed people over these last years. I can’t ask Egyptians to forget their rights, or the police and civilians who died.
SHARMINI PERIES: The second issue that occupied the journalist was President Al Sisi’s relationship with the Israeli military regarding the Sinai Peninsula.
SCOTT PELLEY: Would you say that this is the deepest and closest cooperation that you’ve ever had with Israel?
ABDEL FATTAH AL SISI: [TRANSLATED] 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.
SHARMINI PERIES: After giving this interview, the president’s office pressured CBS to suppress the interview. But CBS went ahead and aired it on Sunday on 60 Minutes.
Now on to talk about all of this with me today is Professor Seif Da’na. Professor dunnart is the chair of the Sociology and Anthropology Departments at the University of Wisconsin Parkdale. He specializes in Middle East and North Africa. Thank you so much for joining us today.
SEIF DA’NA: Thank you, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Professor Da’na, now, after the softball interview that 60 Minutes had given Mohammed bin Salman just back in March, President Al Sisi must have expected a similar outcome as far as his interview with concerned. But Scott Pelley actually gave him some tough questions, here. So why do you think that President Al Sisi wanted to and agreed to do such an interview? What was the critical issues occupying him that he so directly wanted to speak to the American audience?
SEIF DA’NA: Well, the 60 Minutes show actually has a good opportunity to allow or to provide some sort of an exposure to the American audience. And some regimes in the Middle East like the Sisi regime actually see that, in some sense, part of their legitimacy, if not all of their legitimacy, comes from the American administration and the Americans, or from their relationship with the United States, basically. And to be able to address their American audience, and by implication tell the American audience what they might like to hear, actually. And that’s actually how the interview was done, essentially to address an American audience, and by implication American administration.
So that was a good chance, let alone that Sisi himself also needs some sort of international exposure, especially given the media–I’m going to call it media war, really, that is going on in the Middle East between those who are pro-Sisi, and those who are against Sisi; between the Egyptian official media and on the other side the Qatari-Turkish media that attacks the Sisi regime constantly, and reveals his violations of human rights in Egypt.
So this was, in some sense, a good opportunity for this sort of international exposure, an opportunity to address the American audience and possibly improve his image, especially given that many other leaders in the world have been interviewed by 60 Minutes, especially during the time of day of U.N. meetings.
So I think, I think the Egyptian officials are understanding of their treatment, of the preferential treatment that Bin Salman had, as you mentioned, back in March. Essentially it was an infomercial, really, not a political interview. There were no–not only weren’t tough questions, but it was really an infomercial for Mohammed bin Salman. So possibly he did not expect any sort of tough questions.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Now, after such interview, and especially if you didn’t think it went so well in your favor, you would think presidential advisers would not approach 60 Minutes and ask them to suppress such an interview. Because obviously that would go public, and 60 Minutes would take advantage of the fact that they were asked to do so. But yet the president’s office proceeded to do this. Did they not suspect that there’d be fallout?
SEIF DA’NA: I think the same miscalculation that actually led Sisi to do the interview in the first place reflects the mentality of such a regime, and the mentality of such leaders, that they assumed that this could be done. Because this is the way they treat their media, actually, in Egypt and in other parts of the Arab world. So in some sense, I guess they assumed they could manage, or they might be able to succeed in blocking the broadcasts, as I said. But essentially, this is a reflection of what sort of mentality we’re dealing with in Egypt here; what sort of leadership and what sort of mentality this leadership has they assume that such an intervention could lead to blocking the broadcast. But of course, obviously it backfired.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Now, one can assume that the main reason that President Al Sisi wanted to go on 60 Minutes and talk to the American people directly is that A) they get a lot of military aid from the United States, and B) this newfound relationship, the alliance that Saudi Arabia Egypt, the U.S., Israel, now Turkey, all have with Israel. And especially the military cooperation that is taking place at the moment with Israel in the Sinai Peninsula. Tell us more about that, and why he might be wanting to communicate directly with the American public in regards to this relationship.
SEIF DA’NA: Well, as most audiences know, most Arab leaders, really, in the region, especially those who are allied to the United States, are friends with the United States, don’t really have any popular legitimacy. And in some sense they believe, and that’s actually how their policies work, that that key to the American support is to make Israel happy, basically. And they have been doing this for for some time. The Saudi Arabia regime has been doing this. We’ve been seeing recently many communications and normalizations between the Saudi regime and Israel because of the lack of legitimacy for Mohamed bin Salman.
And in Egypt it is the same thing. The key to all that, at least, understanding that the key to American support is to gain Israel’s support, or comes through with the Israeli gate. And that’s why most of the Arab–most of these leaders’ policies intend to actually get to the U.S. through making Israel happy. And Sisi did not actually violate that line. His problem was actually that this interview took place at a different time, essentially when there is an internal or an American sort of dispute over President Trump. So essentially, certain media, or if I want to characterize it critical of President Trump, would use any chance to criticize President Trump. And that’s actually how we can understand the whole campaign regarding the Saudi journalist who was killed, Khashoggi.
I mean, the interest in Khashoggi stems mainly from Trump’s support for Mohammed bin Salman. So criticizing Mohamed bin Salman is actually indirectly a critique of President Trump. And in this case it is very similar, that a critique of President Sisi is a critique of President Trump, because they are actually very close, very close. And President Trump actually talked favorably about President Sisi before. So in some sense that’s actually one of, possibly one of the reasons why not only that he was criticized–I’m talking about President Sisi–but he actually faced tough questions this time rather than receiving the expected treatment that Mohammed bin Salman had before with 60 Minutes.
SHARMINI PERIES: And how is this relationship with Israel being received by the Egyptian public?
SEIF DA’NA: Well, essentially, as I said, the President says he was talking to them, was addressing an American audience, and his understanding is basically that to talk about a good cooperation with Israel would reflect very well on his image in the United States. But of course–I’m not sure why he assumed that Arabs in the region and Egyptians won’t see that interview. But essentially speaking of military cooperation, and allowing Israel to bomb and attack inside Egypt, and attack Egyptian areas. An Egyptian citizen has been seen first as a compromise, a severe compromise, of the Egyptian sovereignty. And this is not the first time that Sisi actually the compromises the Egyptian sovereignty. The first time was when he surrendered the two Egyptian islands to Saudi Arabia.
The second thing is one of Sisi’s accusations of the former regime, the Muslim Brotherhood regime, President Morsi particularly–and accusing him of treason, actually–was because of his alleged cooperation with foreign states. In this case, particularly in this case, it was Qatar. And he was sentenced to death, actually, because of this accusation. Essentially Sisi is doing the same thing. That’s the first part, that there is a severe or a serious compromise of Egyptian sovereignty that the Egyptians don’t like. The second thing is because of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the continuous violations of human rights, and actually in some sense daily crimes committed by Israel against the Palestinians–and particularly in Gaza Strip in the last few months at least–it would not reflect well on Sisi to cooperate with with Israel in this regard.
So I think Sisi was addressing a certain audience and ignored the other audience, the main audience that he should be interested in, his own people. And that’s why I said usually leaders of this sort are not–don’t believe that their legitimacy comes from their people. It comes from the United States and the support of the United States. And that’s why he fell into this mistake, or he committed this mistake. But I guess this is the main reason that the Egyptian government was interested in blocking the interview from being broadcast. Not the issue of human rights as much as the issue of collaboration with Israel, because it touches the issue of sovereignty, which is very serious in this case; to allow not only a foreign country, but a country that most Egyptians assume to be an enemy to act freely within the country, to bomb Egyptian areas, and to kill or attack Egyptian citizens. So that that is really the main issue here, I guess.
SHARMINI PERIES: And in addition, the human rights issue is of concern to him, particularly because of the Human Rights Watch report that had been released in terms of human rights violations in Egypt. And of course he probably anticipated that if he doesn’t tackle this head on it might become another issue only second to, say, the Tahrir Square incidences. So he probably wanted to clarify, or at least explain himself, when he came to the human rights violations, but it didn’t go quite as he planned.
SEIF DA’NA: Of course it did not. Because what he provided was, or were, simply standard propaganda answers, basically, that we don’t have political prisoners in Egypt. We are dealing with, essentially, radicals or terrorists in this case. And essentially anyway is just–the treatment is essentially justified. But I guess the idea, again, I have to reassert the idea that to accuse him of violations of human rights is something I think was bothering him as much as his expectation was to gain the American consent and American support. The key issue is to cooperate with Israel, and assume that that his human rights violations would be forgiven if he is cooperating with Israel, and by implication making the United States happy in this regard.
But of course, it backfired for other reasons. And again, I have to be honest, I don’t think that the media, CBS in this case, was interested in the violations of human rights. It was not interested in the military coup operation as much as it was interested to expose President Sisi for what he is. I’m not saying that the image was bad, of course there are violations of human rights, but because of the American domestic dispute regarding President Trump and President Trump’s policies. Otherwise they have to explain to us the differential treatment that other leaders from the region receive. And they don’t really have a much better record, if not worse in some cases, than President Sisi.
SHARMINI PERIES: I’ve been speaking with Professor Da’na. He’s the chair of the Sociology and Anthropology Department at the University of Wisconsin Parkdale. He specializes in the Middle East and North Africa. Thank you so much for joining us today, Professor.
SEIF DA’NA: Thank you, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.