Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi offered rare acknowledgement of his close security co-operation with Israel in the Sinai Peninsula during a US television interview with the “60 Minutes” news programme.
The programme said Cairo asked the network not to air the interview but did not give further details.
Under Sisi, Egypt quietly co-operated with Israel on security in Egypt’s Sinai, a desert peninsula demilitarised as part of a US-sponsored 1979 peace treaty between the two countrieswhere Cairo’s forces now operate freely.
Acknowledging co-operation with Israel can be a sensitive topic in Egypt.
Asked whether the co-operation was the closest and deepest he has had with Israel, Sisi responded: “That is correct.”
“The air force sometimes needs to cross to the Israeli side. And that’s why we have a wide range of co-ordination with the Israelis,” Sisi said, according to a CBS transcript.
Defeating militants in the Sinai and restoring security after years of unrest has been a key promise of Sisi, re-elected in March last year in a landslide victory against no real opposition.
Islamist militants have waged an insurgency for years in the north of the peninsula, which lacks basic infrastructure and job opportunities. By contrast, the region’s southern coast is peppered with Red Sea tourist resorts.
Egyptian security forces battled Islamist militants in the mainly desert region, stretching from the Suez Canal eastwards to the Gaza Strip and Israel, since 2013.
Asked why he had not wiped the militants out, Sisi responded by pointing to difficulties the United States faced in Afghanistan against the Taliban insurgency.
“Why hasn’t the US eliminated terrorists in Afghanistan after 17 years and spending a trillion dollars?” he asked.
Sisi critics accuse him of cracking down on all dissent, but supporters say tough measures are needed to stabilise Egypt, rocked by years of unrest after protests toppled veteran leader Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
In his interview with “60 Minutes,” Sisi denied Egypt was holding political prisoners. CBS cited one rights group’s estimate of 60,000 political prisoners.
“I don’t know where they got that figure. I said there are no political prisoners in Egypt,” Sisi said.
“Whenever there is a minority trying to impose their extremist ideology … we have to intervene regardless of numbers.”