CAIRO — Egypt’s president has finally announced he will run for a second, four-year term in elections in March, expertly choosing to break the news and do some not-too-subtle vote-canvassing on live television before an adoring audience of government members, hardcore supporters and powerful media figures.
A general-turned-president with authoritarian practices, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s announcement confirmed what was long expected and paved the way for his virtually certain triumph in the March 26-28 vote.
The closing session of a three-day conference called to assess his performance in office offered el-Sissi a perfectly-timed opportunity to list what’s been touted as his achievements. He used the platform to reach out to voters with a mixture of affected humility and fear-mongering appeals to national interests.
His announcement came hours before another graduate of Egypt’s powerful military institution, former chief of staff Sami Annan, said he too would run, and immediately sniped at the incumbent.
“I call on the state’s civilian and military institutions to be neutral and not unconstitutionally biased in favor of a president who may leave his post within months,” he said in a video statement posted on his Facebook account.
A comfortable win for el-Sissi is all but certain given that no serious threat to his re-election is likely to come from any of the presidential hopefuls announced so far, Annan included. Moreover, el-Sissi has the vast resources of the state, including its media, at his disposal to promote himself and speak directly to voters. His rivals have had virtually no access to the media and are ruthlessly vilified or mocked by el-Sissi loyalists who dominate TV talk shows and newspapers.
“I find myself standing once again before my national conscience … asking you to accept my candidacy for the position of president of the republic so I can win your trust for a second presidential term,” el-Sissi said late Friday to a standing ovation, cheers, women’s ululations and “long live Egypt!” — the president’s favorite chant.
“Don’t give your vote except to someone you trust to take care of your affairs,” he said, “You must choose very carefully because you will hand over to him (the winner) your future and the future of your children and grandchildren.”
He added that he would never allow anyone “corrupt” to take his place.
“Can I be aware that someone is a thief and silently allow him to sit on this chair?” a charged el-Sissi put to the crowd, “God will hold me accountable and ask me why I remained silent. Egypt is bigger, dearer, more honorable and dignified than to be ruled by bad people.”
His comment drew criticism by prominent rights lawyer Nasser Amin who warned in a Facebook post that it broke the law and breached the constitution. “The implications of this comment are dangerous and worrying and means that the election will be run according to the views of one candidate,” he wrote.
El-Sissi has often said he wants to establish a modern civil state in Egypt, but his policies have raised questions over whether he actually believes in universal democratic principles and freedoms. His public discourse has almost exclusively been focused on his efforts to revive an ailing economy and the infrastructure “mega projects” he has overseen.
As defense minister, el-Sissi led the military’s 2013 ouster of Egypt’s first freely elected leader, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi, whose one-year rule proved divisive. He has since overseen a harsh crackdown on the opposition, jailing thousands of Islamists along with hundreds of secular activists, including prominent figures from the 2011 uprising that toppled the regime of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak.
Street protests have been effectively banned, human rights groups have been placed under severe restrictions and many critics in the media have been silenced, measures el-Sissi describes as necessary to restore stability, rebuild the economy after years of unrest and fight an Islamic State-led insurgency.
Fielding questions submitted online at the invitation of his office, el-Sissi on Friday night dodged one on human rights, and another on the exclusion of political parties, but instead repeated his signature argument that his view of human rights prioritizes the right to jobs, decent housing and reliable education and health services.
“There are many other rights whose violation is crueler than violating political rights,” he said.
But the president appeared more accommodating when he spoke of rights for women, whose support has been crucial for el-Sissi.
On Friday, he strongly admonished men who harass women, a widespread practice in Egypt that affects both homemakers and working women. He scolded harassers: “Shame on you!” He also praised women’s role in families and, as he has frequently done before, spoke compassionately about his late mother, boasting that he helped her with house chores while growing up in Cairo’s medieval quarter of al-Hussein.
“When we had people over for a meal, I prepared the table with her,” he said to a round of applause.
“Manliness is something totally different from what people know here in Egypt,” he said, alluding to the chauvinistic nature of Egyptian society and the common reluctance by men to help out at home.
El-Sissi appointed two more women to the Cabinet earlier this month, raising to an all-time high of six the number of women in his government.
Associated Press writer Menna Zaki contributed to this report.