CAIRO – Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said Tuesday that those questioning his government about human rights and freedom of expression are ignoring the fact that his country of 90 million lacks development, investment and desperately needed stability.
Speaking during celebrations of national Police Day Tuesday, el-Sissi said he respects human rights but that his country — with a massive segment of Egyptians living in poverty — is facing exceptional circumstances and some violations are inevitable.
El-Sissi focused in particular on critics of a controversial protest law passed by the government last year which punishes all unauthorized demonstrations with up to five years in prison and hefty fines.
These critics says the law aims to quell all forms of dissent amid an intense government crackdown against Islamists and other dissidents — including secular activists who led the 2011 uprising that ousted longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. They also point to the irony that el-Sissi wouldn't be president if not for massive 2013 demonstrations against Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, that prompted el-Sissi — then the defense minister — to oust Morsi.
El-Sissi's government has repeatedly dismissed those criticisms, saying the law doesn't ban demonstrations but rather regulates them.
On Tuesday, and only days before the Jan. 25 anniversary of the uprising against Mubarak, el-Sissi repeated his depiction of protests as a force for distraction and instability.
"Ninety million want to eat, drink, live and be reassured for their future," he told a room packed with police officers and public figures. "I am not saying protests are rejected, never. But I am saying that we gave the issue of the protest such a space...But those 90 million want to eat."
He said tourism, one of Egypt's top foreign revenue sources, has collapsed after years of turmoil, costing the country billions of dollars.
"Who will compensate that? Be careful when you are demanding your rights, be careful. Don't take us down with you. Don't take us down with you," he yelled.
Egypt continues to struggle with a bulging budget deficit and capital flight while more than half the population lives at or below the poverty line of $2 a day. El-Sissi had pledged to improve Egypt's economic stability within two years.
But he has faced international and domestic pressure, even from among allies, to ease the crackdown on protests and dissidents that has reached well beyond the ranks of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists.
"When we meet people who talk about human rights, I tell them are you talking to me about human rights? I tell them, and I swear, I am keener on human rights than anybody else. Not because anyone will hold me accountable, but because God will, before the people," el-Sissi said, seemingly straying from his prepared speech text.
El-Sissi said the country's war on terrorism will take time, saying Egypt is leading a war against Islamic extremism that will benefit the region and the world.