DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This is the sound of Egyptian security forces gunning down supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in August of 2013. Hundreds of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood backers were killed as the military took control of the country. And you could say this was the sound of Egypt's Arab Spring coming to an end. Since then the military-backed government of Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has clamped down on the opposition. Human rights groups estimate there are 40,000 political prisoners behind bars in Egypt right now with widespread accusations of activists being tortured by police. The Sissi government says it is trying hard to make Egypt secure again, and yet terrorist incidents like last year's bombing of a Russian passenger jet are on the rise, and the economy in Egypt is struggling. Most Egyptians opted not to vote in last fall's parliamentary elections, which was seen as rigged in favor of pro-Sissi parties. And all this was the backdrop when Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry visited our Washington, D.C. studio this week. And I began with this question.
Is Egypt a democracy right now?
FOREIGN MINISTER SAMEH SHOUKRY: Egypt is certainly on its way to a full democratization. Democracy is an evolutionary process.
GREENE: As part of this so-called process, independent rights groups say many political prisoners are held without charge. Some have been detained for years without a trial. And that includes 20-year-old Mahmoud Hussein. He was jailed by security forces two years ago. His family says he was picked up because he wore a T-shirt opposing the use of torture in Egypt. But the foreign minister disagrees.
SHOUKRY: He was not imprisoned because of is - or he's not under trial for wearing the T-shirt, but he's under trial for actions which he took which are not in conformity with Egyptian law.
GREENE: He had a T-shirt on that said he wanted a country without torture.
SHOUKRY: Well, that isn't the reason why he was imprisoned because that is a matter of freedom of expression, which is undertaken by a variety of commentators and politicians and TV show hosts on a daily basis.
GREENE: Why was he in prison?
SHOUKRY: He was imprisoned because he was demonstrating without a permit. He was implicated in violent activity during that demonstration. And he is under trial for those actions. He's not...
GREENE: Will there be a trial? Because it's been two years he's been held.
SHOUKRY: There is - yes, no, he is accused by the prosecutor general for specific crimes, which are in the penal code. So it's not a matter of the T-shirt he was wearing. That is purely coincidental. It's taken two years, but I think he...
GREENE: It's a long time.
SHOUKRY: It is a long time, but I believe justice has to be given the opportunity within the impartiality of the judicial system to ascertain all of the facts and to pass a verdict of either guilty or innocent.
GREENE: Now we also discussed the three Al-Jazeera journalists who were famously found guilty and given long prison sentences by an Egyptian court. They were arrested in late 2013 while reporting on the military crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. The journalists have since been released.
SHOUKRY: They had put on the air misleading and confusing presentations, specifically to serve the purposes of what was deemed a terrorist organization in the Muslim Brotherhood. The issue had been portrayed in many media outlets as a matter of freedom of expression, but it was not. It was a matter of regulation. It was a matter of meeting the necessary permits, operating from recognized facilities. These people were operating out of hotel rooms, utilizing equipment that was prohibited to enter the country without permission.
GREENE: As a journalist, I go to another country, and I operate out of hotel rooms. I mean, that's general. Often journalists, that's the only place we can do our work.
SHOUKRY: Well, but you do need a certification, don't you? Before you enter a country and operate as a journalist, you need to register with the competent authorities. Al-Jazeera has a rather definitive political outlook, which is not very supportive of developments in Egypt and which tries to...
GREENE: Let me stop you there, if I may...
GREENE: ...Because as a journalist, I hear something that I really want to ask you about.
GREENE: You say this is a news network that does not have the interests of development in Egypt in mind. I mean, if the government is able to look at a news network, its coverage, judge its coverage and then arrest some of its journalists on the basis of what the government thinks of that coverage, is that a democracy?
SHOUKRY: No, but again, you're putting this in the different context. I specifically said that their - the accusation levied them. Those gentlemen had nothing to do with the content. But that does not deprive me of the ability to evaluate that content. And I am evaluating it as I'm sure you would evaluate NBC or CBS, whether their coverage you would consider as objective or as politically biased, for example.
GREENE: But I'm not a government who could arrest journalists or go after them.
SHOUKRY: No, but then that arrest was not related to the content of what Jazeera is advocating.
GREENE: Nothing was related to content.
SHOUKRY: At all.
GREENE: But they were jailed for airing what was called false news. This was not just about credentials.
SHOUKRY: No, they were jailed for primarily for not having the necessary credentials and having introduced articles and equipment that needed to be authorized.
GREENE: OK, but the judgment of the court, I mean, included false news.
SHOUKRY: Included that they had disseminated false news, for intentionally having disseminated false news that could've been harmful and created agitations, at a very sensitive time during this upheaval of activism and political rivalry.
GREENE: Now as our conversation came to a close, I asked Egypt's foreign minister how he responds to critics who say Egypt's human rights record is unacceptable.
SHOUKRY: No country has a 100 percent human rights record. Every country will have its difficulties in the areas of human rights. And human rights is a concept that is constantly being refined and developed. There are international norms that we all abide by and respect and seek to implement. There will always be transgressions of an individual nature. There will always be ups and downs related to circumstances, related to the fight on terrorism. I can't say that we have been always in conformity with some of these issues, but it is our intention now to do everything possible to live up to those standards and to provide the rights of all individuals.
GREENE: That is Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. He spoke to me in our studios in Washington, D.C.