Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi pledged his support for the U.S. war against Islamic State militants, but called on President Barack Obama to widen his campaign against extremism well beyond Iraq and Syria.
The former Egyptian military commander, in his first interview in the U.S. since formally taking power in June, also cautioned the administration against “washing its hands” of the Middle East at a time when the region’s borders are in flux and the threat of militancy is growing with the instability.
Mr. Sisi cited terrorist threats in Libya, Sudan, Yemen and the Sinai Peninsula as mirroring the danger posed to the Middle East and the West by Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS or ISIL.
He also said he is pursuing economic development, education and the promotion of religious tolerance as tools that were just as important for neutralizing Islamic State and other radical groups as military strikes.
“We can’t reduce the danger lurking in the region to ISIL. We have to bear in mind all the pieces of the puzzle,” Mr. Sisi said in a nearly hourlong interview at a Manhattan hotel. “We can’t just limit the confrontation to checking and destroying the Islamic State.”
Mr. Sisi, 59 years old, is attending the annual United Nations General Assembly this week as a sort of coming out party for one of his region’s most important new leaders.
Since taking office, Egypt’s sixth president has cut energy subsidies in a bid to revitalize his country’s economy, continued a broad crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood movement and worked closely with Israel to broker a tenuous cease-fire with the Palestinian militant group and political party, Hamas.
Leading Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have rallied behind Mr. Sisi as a central part of their effort to contain the political instability that has swept the region since late 2010 and toppled long-standing strongmen such as Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak.
The Obama administration, despite stating concerns about Cairo rolling back democratic reforms and the freedom of the press, has also increasingly sought to woo Mr. Sisi as a key ally in the fight against Islamic State.
To support this effort, the U.S. is preparing to deliver 10 Apache helicopters to Egypt that were placed on hold after Mr. Sisi and his military overthrew President Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood politician, in July 2013.
Mr. Sisi said he supports the U.S. military campaign against Islamic State. But he cautioned against his government getting significantly involved militarily. U.S. officials have talked of the possibility of the Egyptian military training Iraqi forces in counter terrorism tactics.
The Egyptian leader said Iraq’s military and countries closer to Iraq and Syria—particularly Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia—should play the most direct role in combating Islamic State.
“The physical assets for a coalition to be formed are there,” Mr. Sisi said. “The symbolism of a united coalition is very important.”
Mr. Sisi also suggested that Egypt will maintain its right to independently combat extremism and other threats to Cairo’s security.
U.S. officials believe that U.A.E. warplanes, using Egyptian air bases, conducted at least three airstrikes on Islamist militias in Libya last month, without giving the Pentagon prior warning.
Mr. Sisi didn’t confirm the attacks, but said his government was playing an important role in helping Tripoli’s elected government try to maintain order in the North African country.
“We’ve helped the government in Tripoli stand on its feet,” Egypt’s president said. “We provided the Libyans with the opportunity they need.”
Mr. Sisi also outlined his government’s broader campaign to revitalize Egypt’s economy and to set the path for parliamentary new elections.
Cairo has embarked on an aggressive drive in recent months to attract foreign investment from the Arab states and the West. And Mr. Sisi spent much of Monday meeting in New York with businessmen and potential investors, Egyptian officials said.
Mr. Sisi said in addition to stabilizing Cairo’s finances he is seeking to drastically cut the red tape that has been seen as hindering outside investment and foreign economic growth.
“We are undertaking every effort to provide the legislation and the laws to make investment in Egypt more attractive,” Mr. Sisi said. “We say: Welcome to the new Egypt.”
The former general also appeared sensitive to the international criticism of Egypt’s sentencing this year of three journalists from the Al Jazeera television network to long prison sentences.
Mr. Sisi said he needed to respect the independence of Egypt’s judiciary system. But he said he wouldn’t have allowed the cases to be brought forward if he was already in power when they commenced.
“Had I been responsible, and the man in charge, the problem wouldn’t have reached this point,” Mr. Sisi said. “I would have gotten them out of the country.”
Source: The Wall Street Journal