Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has said a pan-Arab military force should be created to combat terrorist groups, insisting the threat of Islamist militancy requires a "unified" response from countries in the region.
The call came as authorities continued to suppress dissent at home, announcing a fresh mass prosecution of members of the Muslim Brotherhood and jailing a number of leading anti-regime activists.
Sisi said in an address broadcast on state television on Sunday that the need for a regional military coalition has increased as militant organizations gain power in the Middle East, but added that Egypt wanted only to defend itself and others, rather than invade foreign territory.
"The need for a unified Arab force is growing and becoming more pressing every day,'' he said.
Sisi called last week for international intervention in neighboring Libya, where extremist militants that have pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State released a grim video apparently showing 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians being beheaded.
In response, the Egyptian air force bombed what it said were facilities belonging to the militants — including training camps and weapons caches — in the northeast Libyan city of Derna. Between 40 and 50 people were reportedly killed. The military claimed that all targets were hit "precisely," but video footage and pictures showed damage to residential areas as well as alleged civilian casualties.
Reports that the creation of a joint Arab military force was being discussed by Egypt along with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait surfaced late last year. Sisi's statement was the first open admission that it was a genuine possibility, however. He said Jordan and the UAE had both offered military support for Egypt's battle with IS.
Meanwhile, the grand imam of Cairo's al-Azhar university, the country's top Islamic institution, called for a major reform of religious teaching in order to counter the spread of religious extremism.
Speaking at an anti-terror conference held in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Sunday, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb suggested historical misinterpretation of the Qur'an had led to extremism and "misguided" forms of Islam.
Sisi's military drive against extremist groups may help to entrench his position as a Western ally and detract from domestic and international criticism over Egypt's crackdown on anti-regime activists. A Cairo court sentenced an activist who became an iconic part of the country's 2011 revolution to five years in prison on Monday for violating strict protest laws.
Blogger and campaigner Alaa Abdel-Fattah was convicted of organizing an unauthorized demonstration and allegedly assaulting a police officer. Egyptian law bans all protests which have not been given express permission, in a move which is widely seen as intended to block all dissent.
Abdel-Fattah was charged with organizing one such demonstration without permission in November 2013 against military trials for civilians. It was violently dispersed by security forces and a number of demonstrators were detained. He rose to fame as an opponent of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in 2011's popular revolution.
More than 20 others were tried alongside Abdel-Fattah. One, Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, was also handed a five-year term, while 21 defendants were given three-year sentences and a further three, who were convicted in absentia, given 15 years behind bars due to their non-attendance.
The verdict was the culmination of a retrial process after initial proceedings had given Abdel-Fattah a 15-year sentence. Human rights lawyers who had been following the latest case described the process as deeply flawed and the defense team is now expected to lodge an appeal against the ruling with the Court of Cassation.
The Sisi government has drawn strong condemnation for its crackdown on opponents since Islamist president Mohamed Morsi was toppled in a bloody coup in July 2013. As well as suppressing secular activists, it has banned Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and casts it as part of the same Islamist threat posed by armed militant groups.
During Sunday's address, Sisi admitted that some of the thousands of youths currently in jail after being detained during protests could have been wrongly arrested and that some would soon be released. This is not expected to affect Abdel-Fattah's case, however.
Also on Sunday, Egypt's public prosecutor Hesha Barakat said that 215 members of the Muslim Brotherhood would be tried for forming a militant group named Helwan Brigades. He said that the group had killed at least six policemen, wounded several others. 125 are already in detention.
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