Egypt's President El-Sissi denies holding political prisoners, despite activists' claims

Egypt President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi told CBS News' "60 Minutes" that his government does not have any "political prisoners nor prisoners of opinion" in a controversial interview broadcast Sunday, despite claims by human rights groups to the contrary.

When interviewer Scott Pelley told El-Sissi that Human Rights Watch claimed Egypt was holding 60,000 political prisoners, the former military leader answered: "I don't know where they got that figure. I said there are no political prisoners in Egypt. Whenever there is a minority trying to impose their extremist ideology, we have to intervene regardless of their numbers."

El-Sissi has overseen one of the largest crackdowns on dissent in the country's modern history since 2013, when he led the military ouster of the Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. The Egyptian leader has previously claimed that everyone in detention is facing legal proceedings for a specific crime committed, but rights activists complain of long detentions without charges — as long as two years or more in some cases.

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"In the last six months of my imprisonment, I was in utter isolation," said Mohamed Soltan, an Egyptian-American activist imprisoned for 21 months before his release in May 2015. "I was systematically, psychologically tortured ... [They shone a] Strobe light until I got, I went into a seizure. Guards that were assigned to me right outside my cell would pass razors under the doorstep and the officer doctors would tell me, 'Hey, Mohamed, cut vertically not horizontally so you can end it faster.'"

The interview made headlines days before its scheduled broadcast when CBS said it had rejected a request by the Egyptian government not to air it. El-Sissi gave the interview in New York about three months ago, when the Egyptian leader was there attending the U.N. General Assembly; CBS did not say why it was not aired earlier.

In an online video segment, "60 Minutes" producer Rachael Morehouse said the Egyptian government had asked that the program submit its questions to El-Sissi "in writing before the interview."

"I had a back and forth with them, I would say for about a month, saying 'Absolutely not. We can't do this, this is not the way we work at 60 Minutes,'" said Morehouse, who added that she received a formal request not to air the interview the day it was recorded.

"It was continued pressure," she said. "They looped in their ambassador, the head of the Mukhabarat [Egyptian intelligence agency] was involved in this ... very high-level people were involved in doing everything that they could to try to negotiate with us so that it was on their terms whether or not we aired this interview."

The network did not specifically say which part of the interview the Cairo government opposed, but speculation has centered on the Egyptian president's admission that his country and Israel were cooperating against Islamic militants in the Sinai Peninsula.

"The [Egyptian] Air Force sometimes needs to cross to the Israeli side [of the border]," El-Sissi said. "And that's why we have a wide range of coordination with the Israelis."

Egypt's military last year denied reports that Egypt and Israel were cooperating against the militants in northern Sinai, a rugged region of mountains and desert bordering Israel and the Gaza Strip where Egyptian security forces have for years battled the extremists, now led by the Islamic State (ISIS).

Israeli officials have praised security cooperation with El-Sissi's Egypt, which has secured Israel's permission to deploy troops, armor and helicopter gunships close to the Israeli border to fight the militants, contravening the peace treaty's limitations on the number of troops and type of weapons Egypt could have in the region.

El-Sissi, since taking office in 2014, has met at least twice with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Their meetings have received little media attention in Egypt, a country where most people still view their neighbor as their sworn enemy and where trade unions and most political parties have been opposed to "normalization" of relations with Israel.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.