Egypt’s Top Diplomat Denies Cairo Is Cracking Down on Dissidents
In an exclusive interview, Sameh Shoukry quotes Goebbels and says “lies” about Egypt have been repeated over and over until they have become “fact.”
Egypt’s top diplomat said in an interview that the West was unfairly maligning his government’s human rights record while failing to support Cairo in its fight against Islamist extremists. He also went out of his way to criticize the World Economic Forum for canceling a high-profile summit scheduled to take place later this year in an Egyptian resort town near the site of an earlier airliner downing because of security concerns.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on Monday told Foreign Policy that terrorist attacks inside his country prompted other governments to question the competence of Egypt’s security services rather than to simply extend condolences and expressions of public support. He said that four million Egyptians either lost their jobs or saw their incomes fall because of the near-collapse of the country’s tourism industry during the ongoing wave of terror attacks. Concerns over Egypt’s security spiked in October when a Russian airline disintegrated above the Sinai Peninsula, an incident many nations attributed to the Islamic State. Shoukry said the incident remained under investigation.
“Egypt has been treated as a culprit, and not as a victim,” Shoukry said in an exclusive interview. “When we have seen terror operations in other areas, there was a rush to solidarity. You would have thought that similar solidarity would have been shown to Egypt, especially as it goes through a very difficult stage.”
In the interview, Shoukry waded into the growing controversy over the murder of a young Italian, Giulio Regeni, whose battered corpse was found near a highway on the outskirts of Cairo. The case has sparked outrage in Italy, whose interior minister said Regeni had suffered “inhuman, animal-like” violence. Italian media outlets have reported that authorities in Rome believe the doctoral student may have been tortured and killed by Egyptian security personnel, a charge Shoukry rejected as “utterly confounding.”
More broadly, Shoukry used the interview at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington to push back against Western critics of his government’s arrests of dozens of journalists and tens of thousands of political opponents, mainly from the banned Muslim Brotherhood. Activists like Ken Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, say the country has 40,000 political prisoners. Shoukry said the figure — which often appears in news articles and reports by outside advocacy groups — is a lie.
“Are we to return to the ideologies and the practices of Goebbels, where he says that if you repeat a lie sufficiently it becomes a truth?” he asked, referring to the famed Nazi propagandist. “It has been an onslaught of 40,000, repeated and repeated and repeated in the public domain until it has been accepted as a matter of fact.”
In 2015, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Egypt was “among the world’s worst jailers of journalists.” In December 2013, three al Jazeera journalists – including a Canadian and an Australian — were arrested and accused of broadcasting false news and belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. One was later deported, while the two others were pardoned last September. But the case sparked accusations that Cairo was working to limit free speech in the country.
On Monday, Shoukry pushed back on claims that there has been a massive crackdown on free press under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s administration, saying that he has at times been given lists of journalists who are reportedly in prison and officials later “found them living and prospering well in their jobs, in their homes, and they had never been touched.”
“They had been put on certain lists just as a matter of filling those lists,” he said.
Shoukry, formerly Egypt’s ambassador to Washington, arrived in the United States shortly after leaving Geneva, where he participated in Syrian peace talks that dissolved amid a Russian-backed assault on the rebel stronghold of Aleppo. Moscow’s military aid to Damascus has helped Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad steadily reconquer more and more of his country.
Even before the United Nations formally suspended the talks last Wednesday, the negotiations were going off the rails because two major backers of the Syrian opposition — the United States and Turkey — have been trading blows over Washington’s support for Syrian Kurdish forces.
Washington views the Kurds as some of its most important battlefield allies in the fight against the Islamic State, but Turkey considers them to be affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a Kurdish resistance group it views as terrorists.
“How can we trust you? Is it me that is your partner or is it the terrorists in Kobani?” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters this weekend in remarks directed at the United States.
Shoukry, who has played a major role in facilitating the Syrian peace talks, took the United States’ side, saying the Kurds represented a legitimate segment of the Syrian opposition and should be treated as such.
“They are certainly part of the opposition. They are very effective against Daesh, or ISIS,” he said. “We have always advocated that they should be part of the process.”
Shoukry reserved special scorn for the World Economic Forum’s decision to cancel a summit planned for the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh. The organization is best known for hosting an annual gathering of political and business leaders in Davos, Switzerland, and Egypt had planned to host a similar meeting focused on the Middle East and North Africa later this year. Instead, the forum indefinitely postponed the summit because of what one spokesperson reportedly described as “the current situation,” an oblique reference to Egypt’s security woes.
“Absolutely not,” Shoukry responded when asked whether the organization had made an appropriate decision.
“The forum is not in a position to make that sort of assessment,” he said, deriding its conclusions as “flimsy.”
Shoukry was just as definitive when it came to the case of Regeni, who was in Egypt in part to research labor unions. He disappeared on Jan. 25 after leaving his Cairo home to meet a friend near Tahrir Square, where protests in 2011 sparked a revolution in Egypt. That was the last time he was seen alive. Egyptian officials claim they didn’t find Regeni’s tortured body until Feb. 3.
In the days since Regeni’s body was discovered, Italian media speculated that Egyptian security forces could have detained and tortured him for more information about his Egyptian contacts. On Monday, Shoukry dismissed those allegations, and accused journalists reporting that version of the story as fact of “jumping to conclusions and speculation without any authoritative information or authentication of what is being alluded to.”
The top diplomat added that his government was sharing investigative data and working closely with Italy on a full probe of Regeni’s killing, which he described as a “crime” rather than a de facto assassination.
Shoukry also politely, but firmly, pushed back at the Barack Obama administration’s ongoing public criticism of various elements of his country’s human rights record and treatment of journalists and political opponents. Some Egyptians, he said, believed Washington was intentionally misrepresenting conditions inside Egypt.
“We avoid criticizing our partners,” he said. “If we wanted to criticize, we would find ample room of issues that we might be concerned about. But I don’t think it is our competency.”
Photo credit: Thomas Trutschel/Getty Images
Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady