CAIRO — Former army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi gave the first TV interview of his campaign to become Egypt’s next president on Monday, saying he decided to run because of the threats facing the nation after his removal of the country’s first democratically elected president, Islamist Mohammed Morsi.
El-Sissi’s campaign for the May 26-27 election is likely to largely be made up of TV and media interviews and private meetings, with few street appearances, mainly because of security concerns, given the fierce emotions surrounding his candidacy and the wave of militant attacks on the military and police since his removal of Morsi last summer. In the interview aired Monday night on two private Egyptian TV channels, he said there have already been two assassination plots against him uncovered.
The lack of street campaigning is unlikely to damage the 59-year-old el-Sissi, who is widely seen as the certain victor in the race. His only opponent in the race is leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, a third-place finisher in the 2012 election won by Morsi. Since removing Morsi, el-Sissi has been riding an overwhelming media frenzy lauding him as the savior of the country from the Muslim Brotherhood, once Egypt’s most powerful political force but now all but crushed by a ferocious crackdown.
After ousting Morsi on July 3 in the wake of massive protests against the then-president, el-Sissi had said he did not have political aspirations — and in Monday’s interview he repeated that.
“I can’t respect myself if I thought that way, that I made a plan to seize power in Egypt. I wouldn’t be respecting myself or the people,” he said.
Asked when he changed his mind, he said it was because of “the threats facing Egypt from inside and outside.” He pointed to the turmoil after the Aug. 14 dispersal of two large pro-Morsi protest camps in Cairo, when security forces killed hundreds of Morsi supporters, prompting a backlash of violence around the country and international criticism.
“Remember how Egypt looked, and the security situation and the anxiety how far it had reached? You saw how the outside world was dealing with us,” he said. He pointed to the “threat of the fall of the nation,” saying, “I couldn’t abandon the people.”
El-Sissi, who retired from the military with the rank of field marshal to launch his candidacy, heads into office at a time of deep polarization in Egypt. Morsi’s supporters have continued protests against the new government, often met by fierce and lethal clashes with security forces. Hundreds have been killed and more than 16,000 members of the Brotherhood and other Islamists have been arrested, as have a number of secular activists who warn of a return to autocracy under el-Sissi.
At the same time, the country is facing mounting economic woes. The interim government has been struggling with an energy crisis amid shortfalls of natural gas, and throughout the day Monday before el-Sissi’s address, neighborhoods of the capital Cairo were hit by rotating blackouts — as they have been for months.