There are no detainees in Egypt, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi said in his meeting with the editors-in-chief of state-owned newspapers.
During the seven-hour meeting on Sunday, Al-Sisi tackled a wide array of ongoing political, social, and economic issues.
In the third and final part of the interview, he discussed with the editors topics encompassing rights and freedoms, religious discourse, corruption, gender rights, and others.
“There aren’t any detainees in Egypt. But there are people who are imprisoned in certain trials and on blatant charges, such as terrorism,” Al-Sisi said. He added that there will be a presidential pardon to release over 300 prisoners, some of whom were detained on protest charges, within a few days.
Al-Sisi’s regime has been heavily criticised by international organisations and media over an increased crackdown on journalists, political activists, and all forms of dissent. On his first anniversary in 2015, international watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a report in early June documenting human rights violations under his rule.
On the domestic level, the quasi-governmental National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) highlighted in its annual report in July crimes of torture and ongoing human rights violations, mainly in police stations and detention facilities, documenting three deaths in detention as a direct result of torture and another 20 deaths as a result of poor conditions inside prison.
“Egypt is much more willing to preserve human rights than those who preach about it in foreign countries,” Al-Sisi said. However, the president limited his definition of human rights to: the right to eat, have access to public services, and security stability.
The number of freedom of expression detainees has increased during Al-Sisi’s rule, with 152 recently sentenced in May to two to five years in prison for protesting against the recent maritime demarcation deal between Egypt and Saudi Arabia over the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir.
Most of those protestors were released after having to pay an exorbitant amount in bail while others were put back into detention pending other trials. They are facing charges such as belonging to an outlawed organisation and attempting to overthrow the regime.
On media coverage, Al-Sisi said he has absolutely no problem with freedom of expression, but what often draws his attention is the media coverage by people who do not have enough background on the issues they cover and hence publish inaccurate information. He referred to the infamous murder of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni in Cairo in early February and the claims that Egyptian security was behind it—this has been reported prolifically in international media.
A Rome-based channel claimed in late July that nine recordings were examined by investigative authorities, and the results indicated that Regeni was allegedly followed into a metro station by five police officers on 25 January 2016─the day he disappeared.
On to other issues, the president did not seem to be satisfied with the current cabinet’s performance, saying: “Some ministers need to advance their performance.” When asked whether there are plans for a cabinet reshuffle, he remained silent.
In March, there was a cabinet reshuffle which saw the change of then prime minister Ibrahim Mehleb and 10 ministers, including health, justice, transportation, and civil aviation.
Religious discourse was also among the issues discussed in the meeting; Al-Sisi asserted the importance of pluralism and allowing expression of multiple opinions, noting that there are ongoing ignorant attempts to counter religious reforms.
Since the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in 2013, there have been a string of measures undertaken by the Ministry of Religious Endowments to tighten its grip over religious discourse. In its most recent decisions, the ministry decided to unify the Friday prayer speech and obliged all imams to adhere to it.
Furthermore, Al-Sisi again blamed media coverage of certain events for inciting the recent incidents of religious strife, saying that there should be an increase in societal efforts to contain such crises and unite against them.
In late May, an elderly Christian woman in Al-Karm village of Minya was dragged in the street, beaten, and had her clothes ripped off, when a rumour about an alleged affair between her son and a Muslim woman sparked tensions. One day later, a group estimated at more than 200 people looted and torched at least seven homes belonging to Coptic families.