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CNBC Interview: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi

CNBC Interview: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi

Below are excerpts of an interview with CNBC's Hadley Gamble and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi broadcast on CNBC on Tuesday 7th November 2017.

Hadley Gamble (HG): Mr. President thank you so much for joining CNBC. I want to kick-off by talking about the macro-economic picture for Egypt. A lot of investors are excited about getting involved in the Egyptian economy today, but there are concerns about the regional stability and the regional geo-political picture. President Sisi do you agree with President Trump's agreement to tear up the nuclear agreement with Iran?

PRESIDENT ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI: Let me answer this question in three paths. The first path concerns investment opportunities in Egypt. The measures we have taken brought about real economic reform and we can say that we are proceeding seriously and the Egyptian people understand that. They are bearing the results and looking forward to a better future. This is a very important point because that we cannot take any measures that public opinion doesn't accept. And they are cooperating with us in it so the economic measures we are taking are very ambitious and bold and aim to put Egypt on the right track. The second thing is to attract investment to Egypt. We created a very strong legislative structure in order to attract investments. I don't want to say that the government now with the procedures that we have taken in the infrastructure especially in available energy, like gas and electricity.

With all of that, there are no real problems facing investors to come and work here, taking into consideration that Egypt is the second biggest economic revenue for any investors that will come to Egypt. We are careful to encourage them by all means possible. And the third point is about the stability inside Egypt first. In Egypt, for the past three and a half years, we can say that stability and security increase every day. And the stability in Egypt doesn't emanate from the power of the police force or military forces imposing stability and security but from the will of the people. The Egyptians are the ones who are eager for stability and that Egypt is safe for their future and the future of their children and grandchildren.

The stability of Egypt does not come from the power of the government but from the will of the Egyptian people to maintain the stability and the security of their country. As for the Iranian nuclear agreement, here in Egypt, all that is important for us with regards to the region is the, that Arab national security is untouched. The national security in the Gulf is part of our security and our national security is part of the security of the Gulf. We want the region to live in peace, stability and security and that our national security is untouched and the Arab national security, the Gulf national security is untouched. That is what we are looking for. In short, we have no reservations on any measures taken or any agreements made that don't touch upon Arab national security.

HG: But some of the critics of President Trump's policies would say that the regional disputes, whether it be in Yemen or Qatar or Syria are direct results of the ideological differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia, can you tell me specifically, how tearing up the Iran deal will actually make the middle-east safer?

PRESIDENT ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI: I see that President Trump is managing foreign policy in our region. Can I say in short that the United States has regained its weight in the region and its role and is preserving the security of the region and its countries.

We are completely supporting and cooperating with President Trump on this.

HG: Saad Hariri just resigned as the PM of Lebanon and he did that from Riyadh. How concerned are you about a Saudi backed war on Hezbollah?

PRESIDENT ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI: I want to say that the stability of the region is very important and we all have to protect it and I am talking to all the parties in the region to preserve it. The region has more than enough fighting and turmoil and lack of stability. We don't want to add more instability and fighting. This message is for everyone. We should be keen on our stability and security, and the others should be keen too on their stability and security. The region cannot support more turmoil. This is the message I want to convey and we are keen on the unity of Lebanon and its stability and peace of Lebanon, Lebanon with its diversity and its multiplicity in the patriotic country of Lebanon. Lebanon is a patriotic country. Lebanon is a patriotic country. We preserve its unity, we preserve its stability, and we preserve its independence.

HG: So it's not the time to take on Hezbollah?

PRESIDENT ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI: The subject is not about taking on or not taking on, the subject is about the status of the fragile stability in the region in light of the unrest facing the region, like Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen and Somali and other countries.

We want to increase stability, not have more instability with other measures.

HG: Let's talk about potential partners in stabilization. Russia today has the influence to exert enormous influence in the Middle East. Is President Putin the best partner to ensure regional stability?

PRESIDENT ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI: I see that always dialogue and discussion and understanding between the United States as the biggest country in the world and Russia is very important to achieve stability and so that there isn't… If there is no dialogue or understanding it will be at the cost of stability in the region. That is what I see and that is my opinion and I always say that always understanding between Russian and America is a very important matter. We support this communication and understanding which will in the end positively impact our region that is very sensitive and very turbulent now.

HG: Who would you say you are closer to? President Trump or President Putin?

PRESIDENT ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI: (Laughs) That question is excellent. My relation with others and all the presidents is always good and excellent and the depth of understanding is very good. I very much admire President Trump. I anticipated his victory and I anticipate that he will succeed in managing a country as massive as the US. We have very good relations with President Putin. We have good relations with everyone, everyone. These are the old morals of politics. We, in Egypt, look upon it as something from the bygone days. The era of polarization is at the cost of security worldwide and peace for the whole world. Dialogue, understanding and communication is much better.

HG: Let's talk about one of the key issues for the region and Egypt specifically, when you talk about the broader investment picture and that of course is security. Just over two weeks ago there was an attack on your security forces, which really led to complete overhaul of the security apparatus here in Egypt. How many people died in that attack?

PRESIDENT ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI: The last attack in Wahat? We have announced it. There are a lot of numbers that were mentioned. We told the press centre to release the real figure. It is 16 and 17 were rescued. There were 16. This is not a small number, I mean… I mean for 16 security forces to die in a security operation, this is a big number. What I can say right away is that immediately we regained the initiative. We put a complete end to this cell. Everyone who was in it and all the elements and their equipment. We exterminated it. We brought back one of our soldiers who had been held there.

HG: There are critics of your policies here in Egypt that say that the security situation hasn't improved as much as you promised voters. What's your plan to get it under control?

PRESIDENT ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI: Of course, if there are any critics on the security status, we are at war against terrorism in the full meaning of the word. Egypt is in this war alone, without duplicity, we are serious and honest in confronting terrorism. Another point, when we are confronting this terrorism, we are very keen that no innocent people or civilians are hurt. The confrontation is not easy. We are concerned about the people who have nothing to do with this war. Stability has been achieved by comparison to what it was like before. No, of course the percentage of stability has increased in a very big and noticeable way. I am not the only one saying this, but everyone who is following up Egypt's affairs can see this. But did we finish totally, of course not. You know well that the American forces were in Afghanistan and Iraq and despite all the capabilities available, terror continued for many years. Absolute decisiveness with terrorism is not easy.

HG: Is the US fulfilling its commitment to Egypt when it comes to providing equipment and intelligence in helping to combat the threat of terror?

PRESIDENT ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI: It has completely changed for the better since President Trump has come to power in the United States.

HG: Since you were elected president the Egyptian economy has stabilized. You've had some major infrastructure projects with some of the biggest companies in the world. But one of the areas still falling short is tourism and of course that has links to the security situation. When it comes to bringing tourists back to Egypt, and really emphasizing and improving the employment situation as well, how do you plan to address the problem?

PRESIDENT ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI: I have to say that targeting tourism in Egypt is a very dangerous issue and it has a big impact on the economy. It earns a big revenue. We haven't reached the number of tourists or the revenue we had before until now. In the past seven years, we haven't reached the figures prior to 2011. We haven't reached the levels of revenue either. If anyone wants to harm the Egyptian economy, they always target that sector to impact our revenue from it. We can say the situation is getting much better compared to the past months and years. The security measures in the whole country and especially in touristic areas are at the highest level to guarantee for tourists visiting Egypt safety and stability in order to enjoy their visit and return safely to their countries. Of course the economic situation is improving very much. We have launched big projects. First with the Suez Canal, one and a half million acres of land for cultivation, fish farming, road networks, energy projects, all these projects, housing projects, infrastructure in general. It involved lots of laborers. Almost 3 million citizens were working for three and a half years on these projects. This was a large part of the solution to unemployment in Egypt. Don't forget that Egypt has 60 million under the age of 40. Most of them are youth.

So providing work for millions of young people is not an easy job.

HG: The tourism situation has a lot to do with security, but it also has to do with social issues as well. Right now there is a young woman from Hull, in England and she is apparently facing the death penalty, can you send a message to her parents that this young woman is going to be ok?

PRESIDENT ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI: I want to say that we are very keen on matters concerning the judiciary. We don't interfere at all in judicial matters in Egypt. I always repeat this. Egyptian courts act without any interference and will never permit me to interfere in any matters. They practice total independence in their jurisdiction, in general. The message I say to anyone who is following me, here in Egypt, we have a just and fair judiciary that works professionally abiding by the law and the constitution, and nobody can interfere with their work. They are eager to bring justice according to the Egyptian law.

HG: Last week the IMF's regional director assured me that he was confident in your economic progress in terms of the plans to return to growth; and the investor sentiment has improved, but inflation remains very high and many Egyptians face financial uncertainty. What's the timeline to prosperity here?

PRESIDENT ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI: SISI: Of course, I want to say that I have to confess that the Egyptian economy was suffering from chronic problems as I said at the beginning and that our measures to reform are real. When we are doing it, we are trying to do it in a balanced way so that the reforms don't weigh upon the Egyptians from the inflation that goes with the reform measures we have taken. We are keen on measures we have taken for social protection that we adopted in past months to ease the pressure of inflation on low income citizens.

HG: We're in Sharm el Sheikh on the side-lines of a major international youth conference. One of the questions that I have for you today is can you deliver on your promise to young people here in Egypt and what is your plan to do that?

PRESIDENT ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI: I will tell you, I am always keen if I make a promise to fulfil it with all my efforts and if it doesn't happen it's beyond my ability as President of Egypt. I am keen on fulfilling my promise or it is not a good thing. Another point, regarding Egypt's youth, I always imagine that the real problem for the youth in the region is that there is no real communication between them and the government, and I am talking about Egypt. I always consider that one of the biggest reasons for the turmoil and revolutions that occurred was the lack of real communication between the leadership, the government and their youth. Because of that, I want to say that this conference was result of a whole year of communication with Egyptian youth. Since last November until now, we have regular meetings in Egyptian governorates to communicate with and hear from the youth, to listen to them, to listen to us and to talk. The conference used to last two to three days. The results of the idea were great regarding communication and giving the opportunity to the youth of Egypt to talk and for us to listen. We have other programs to empower the youth. We have Presidential training programs which take youth from all Egyptian governorates and train them for nine months to a certain level so we give them the chance through the training and their knowledge to participate in managing the country. We take a higher level who have PhD's, 200 people who will be trained for a year in and outside of Egypt to help them to take responsibility in the future. What I want to say, is how honest and serious the Egyptian youth are in their dialogue with us. Are they honest and serious in their dialogue with us, are they keen that we participate? I think that the message has been communicated in a good way until now. And it will show in this conference.

HG: Mr. President you mentioned there a failure to communicate between young people and government. The hashtag for this conference – we have to talk – was really hijacked on social media in recent days with many of your critics calling for more transparency, more help with employment and of course they charge that this is an administration that takes people prisoner simply because they disagree with its policies. How do you answer those critics?

PRESIDENT ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI: I want to say as I said in the beginning, in Egypt there are only legal measures that target achieving the stability you have spoken of. You were asking me about the stability and the security of the country in a country with 100 million and more than 60 million are youth. How can I guarantee that there is a chance for stability if there is no law or state of law in Egypt? But despite what I am saying, that we are keen on having a state of law, we cannot afford that a country with all these circumstances, with terrorism, targeted by extremist forces working against the stability of Egypt and with this huge number of youth who need job opportunities, want to live, have a house, have a wife, all of this we must take in to consideration when we talk about legal measures that are taken. Despite all this, and there was a committee in one of the youth conferences eight months ago that asked us to review our position and issue a pardon and I told them to organize a youth committee and look at these cases that were decided by the judges, and I will issue pardons to the list they bring me. We did this already for six or seven lists and there is still another list that is being prepared to resolve these issues.

HG: When you talk about the security of this country and the necessity of securing this country from terrorists. Human rights watch for example has said that many of the people in prison in Egypt today are not terrorists, you can't put everyone in prison can you?

PRESIDENT ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI: That's right. Can you imagine with a country of a hundred million, how many can we put in prison. We don't have prisons that can hold more than 20 or 30 thousand. In Egypt we don't have more prisons than that. In America, what is the percentage of the population in prison? In your country? For the security and stability of the United States to be obtained, how many? What percentage? I am asking you. I am asking you and I am asking all the citizens that are listening to me. What percent? We say 20 to 30,000 at most. Some are criminals or terrorists, and so on. We don't have prisons that take more than that. I am talking about criminals, extremists and terrorists. I think in your country its one to two percent. If I put one of two percent of the 100 million in my country, it would be one million. I would put one million.

HG INTERRUPTS: So everybody in prison here today in Egypt, are they terrorists?

PRESIDENT ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI: Of course not. I wish you take this percentage in consideration when we are speaking about reality in Egypt. I didn't say that. I am saying that all those imprisoned in Egypt, of course with all legal measures, we are talking about criminal cases, people who committed criminal acts like stealing, killing, rape, those kind of things, then the people we arrested for terrorism. By the way, they appear before the General Prosecutor and the court that takes the decision. No one here is under arrest for political opinions.

HG: I want to talk about women. Cairo has recently been listed as one of the least safe cities for women. Dangerous for women to walk down the street. How do you plan to address this?

PRESIDENT ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI: I am going to ask a question. Who is the one who decides that Egypt is more dangerous for women or not? What survey has been done to establish that? What public opinion survey was done? Who is accusing us of this?

HG: (Interrupts) So you don't believe that women are regularly sexually harassed on the street in Cairo, for example?

PRESIDENT ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI: No, no, no. I admit that they face …but there is a difference between saying that Cairo is the biggest capital in the world facing sexual harassment. There is sexual harassment in Egypt. There is a big percentage; it is a high percentage, but not to say that it is the worst. By law, and by all measures, by which we can show society's appreciation for women. On a personal basis, I do this to give a message to Egyptian society. How the woman has been appreciated and has her status. For any male, young or old, who does something like this, he has to be held accountable by law. It will take time to regain the kind of security and stability that will satisfy all of us.

HG: When you look at the young people who are going to gather here over the next few days, you said the future is young people, but there is no one in your administration under 40 years of age. We've seen in the gulf states, in Saudi Arabia, in the UAE as well we've seen an effort to bring young people into the government. What's it going to take to change this paradigm in Egypt. When are we going to see more young people in government?

PRESIDENT ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI: In the old days the number of cabinet members were mostly over 60.

HG: (Interrupts) So it's progress is what you're saying?

PRESIDENT ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI: Very much, very much. Most of them are between 45 and 50. We are keen that their deputies, we give the ministers a chance to choose two or three young people as their deputies to train them in a good way for government work. If a minister now is 45 or 50 years old, with two or three different deputies in his ministry, being trained to have responsibility in the future. I am talking about young people 30 to 32 years old.

HG: And finally Mr. President. You're looking at elections in the coming months, can you give us a time-frame for elections here in Egypt and will you stand for re-elections?

PRESIDENT ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI: We are talking about the time frame next March and April for the election to be held in Egypt. I want to say through this interview that there is a big, big development that happened in Egypt regarding the President's position and this you have to take into consideration. There is no President who will sit in the chair without the will of the Egyptian people. He will not be able to continue another term without the will of the Egyptian people. In both cases, it is eight years. I am with preserving two four year terms and not to change it and if there is any change needed to the constitution, if it is needed, and I am not talking about the terms. I am saying that we have a new constitution now and we are working on making new laws to abide by it in the country of Egypt, and I am not for any amendments to be made to the constitution in this period. The constitution grants the right of the parliament and the president to request amendments. I am talking about the four year terms. We will not interfere with it. So, the one who is in the president's seat will not be able to stay after the term allowed by law and the constitution. And what determines this will be the elections by the Egyptian people. This honors me and makes me happy. It doesn't suit me as a President to stay one more day against the will of the Egyptians. This is not talk for TV, those are principles I embrace and I am keen on. The president or individual who respects people and his principles would not stay a day against the will of his people.

HG: Mr. President thank you so much for joining CNBC.

PRESIDENT ABDEL FATTAH EL-SISI: I thank you and allow me to take this opportunity to send the message of respect and greetings to the American people. Wishing you prosperity and progress, thank you very much.

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