Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during a televised speech, Apr. 13, 2016. Photo from state television
CAIRO, Apr 13 (Aswat Masriya ) – Reiterating his ties to the army, Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said on Wednesday he has not given up Egyptian land but only returned Saudi land to Saudi Arabia, amid mounting criticism over a newly-signed maritime demarcation agreement.
“Rest assured about the man you entrusted with [the responsibility of] your country, your honour and your land,” Sisi said in a televised speech described in his official Facebook page as a “meeting with representatives of society.”
Held at the presidential palace, the speech was attended by a number of parliamentarians, journalists, members of professional syndicates and trade unions, and representatives of the state-affiliated human rights council.
Last Saturday, during a visit by Saudi King Salman bin Abdel Aziz to Cairo, the Egyptian cabinet announced in a statement that Egypt signed a maritime border demarcation agreement with Saudi Arabia stipulating that the two Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir will be part of Saudi territorial waters.
The agreement has come under heavy scrutiny from Egyptian analysts, journalists and public figures, as well as from social media users who argue the two islands are Egyptian and accuse Sisi of “selling Egypt” to Saudi Arabia.
Tiran island is located in the Gulf of al-Aqaba, about 5 or 6 km from the Sinai Peninsula, and it has a total area of about 80 square km. Sanafir island lies to the east of Tiran with a total area of 33 square km. The two islands are strategically significant as they both control maritime activity in the Gulf of al-Aqaba.
State vs. individuals
Sisi defended the agreement in his speech today. "Egypt does not sell its land to anyone and it does not take anyone's land," he said, adding that he understands Egyptians’ concerns.
“I am happy about Egyptians’ reaction. Your jealousy for your country, your fear for it pleases me and pleases any patriotic Egyptian. I need to correct this jealousy and to tell you how to [make] change, when to [make] change.”
Sisi praised the Egyptian state and its institutions, saying that “there is a wide gap between how the state deals with its issues” and how “individuals” do so.
“I belong to this army”
Highlighting warnings he has repeatedly made about “a conspiracy” against Egypt and “Egyptians’ coherence”, Sisi said that Egyptians “need to stand behind the army and the police.”
He said that what “protected” Egypt is “Egypt’s people and their unity, with the exception of one faction, may God guide them. Then, the army.”
Before being elected as president in 2014, Sisi was the country’s defence chief and he led the military ouster of then-President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 following mass protests against his rule.
“I belong to this army, I belong to this institution that taught us to respect people and fear for them … and to fear for every grain of sand.”
Principles and values
Sisi also said that he has to stay away from “opportunism” when he carries out the "mission of preserving the Egyptian state."
His words were met with applause from the audience when he noted that when he reached the decision to hand over control of the two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, he was guided by what he learnt from his mother. “She taught me” not to seek to seize what belongs to others, he said.
Since January, the Egyptian government has come under fire over the abduction, torture and murder of Giulio Regeni, an Italian Ph.D. researcher who went missing on the fifth anniversary of the 2011 Uprising that toppled then-President Hosni Mubarak, another former army officer who ruled the country for 30 years. Regeni's body was found in February with bruises and signs of torture.
During his speech, Sisi offered condolences to Regeni’s mother and added that there is an Egyptian citizen missing in Italy as well.
He blamed the media in Egypt for spreading allegations that the police is responsible for the Italian student’s murder, saying that journalists should not depend on social media as a source of information.
“There are evil people in our midst” spreading lies, he added, hinting at a conspiracy against the “very special relations” between Egypt and Italy, which “stood by Egypt’s side” after the June 30 protests that led to Mursi’s ouster.
Italy recalled its ambassador to Egypt on Friday following “recent developments in the investigation" into Regeni's murder, the Italian foreign ministry had said in a statement published on its website.
An Egyptian delegation which comprised security and judicial officials was on a visit to Rome, to discuss Egyptian investigators' findings on Regeni's case, when Italy recalled its ambassador.
Freedom of expression vs. “work”
Commenting on criticisms leveled from Egyptian and international human rights defenders against the country's human rights record, Sisi said that “freedom of expression” is important but is not the only key to Egypt's progress.
“Freedom of expression or work?” he asked. “Egypt’s progress will not be through freedom of expression alone."