SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (AP) — Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi defended on Monday his country’s widely criticized human rights record and warned the nations of Europe not to lecture the Arab world.
In a fiery speech after a summit of European Union and Arab League leaders, Sissi said Europe is prosperous and does not understand the concerns of many Arab countries that are struggling to prevent conflict from tearing them apart.
“You are not going to teach us about humanity,” he told reporters after the issue was raised at a news conference. “We have our own sense of humanity, values and ethics, and you have your own idea of humanity and ethics, and we respect it. Respect our values and ethics, as we do yours.”
“This city, through one terrorist act, could be turned into a ghost city,” Sissi said. Egypt’s tourism industry was hard hit after a bomb downed a Russian passenger plane flying out of Sharm el-Sheikh airport in 2015.
Sissi was applauded after his remarks, prompting European Council President Donald Tusk to say: “I really appreciate how enthusiastic your media are. It’s impossible in Europe to have such a reaction. Congratulations.”
No concerns about human rights in Egypt — or any of the other 48 countries — were raised publicly in Sharm el-Sheikh, even amid an unprecedented crackdown on dissent and a recent spike in executions. At least 15 people have been put to death in Egypt this year.
Amnesty International called on Egypt to halt the executions, saying that some defendants said they confessed under torture.
The summit statement made no general appeal for human rights to be respected.
“No one in particular talked about one country or another, or the practices in one country or another,” Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit told reporters.
But European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker insisted that “it is not true that we did not talk about human rights.” Juncker said the issue was raised behind closed doors in bilateral meetings between leaders, but he did not name any country.
The meeting, held under tight security, was offered by the Europeans to Sissi in October in part to secure Egypt’s help to stop people seeking sanctuary or jobs in Europe from leaving northern Africa.
A similar summit was granted to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2015 — then later billions in aid for refugees in Turkey and other incentives — to persuade him to help halt the flow of well over a million migrants into Europe.
Mired in a deep political crisis over their inability to stem migrant arrivals or share the burden with countries like Greece, Italy and Spain, the Europeans want the Egyptian coastguard to patrol the waters off lawless Libya and take migrants back to the African mainland.
The summit was held weeks after Egyptian lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to extend presidential term limits for Sissi that could see him remain in power until 2034, part of a package of constitutional amendments that would further enshrine the military’s role in politics.
Human Rights Watch says the amendments would undermine judicial independence and expand executive powers that are already being abused in Egypt. The group says over 15,000 civilians, including children, have been referred to military prosecution in Egypt.
Rights researchers broadly agree that Egypt holds tens of thousands of political prisoners — mostly Islamists but also some secular liberals.