Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, speaks during a news conference in Cairo, Egypt. Supporters of Egypt’s president announced on Dec. 24, that they have collected more than 12 million signatures from people urging him to run for a second four-year term. (Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Egyptian president’s backers say 12M want him to run again

CAIRO — Supporters of Egypt’s president announced on Sunday that they have collected more than 12 million signatures from people urging him to run for a second four-year term, a mostly symbolic gesture as there is little doubt he will contest, and win, next year’s elections.

A general-turned-president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has yet to formally announce his candidacy. He has said he will make his decision after gauging popular reaction to a “factsheet” of his achievements due to be publicized next month.

El-Sissi was elected in 2014, a year after leading the military’s overthrow of an elected but divisive Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. The government has since waged a heavy crackdown on dissent, jailing thousands of people — mostly Islamists but also many secular pro-democracy activists. It has also blocked hundreds of websites, banned all unauthorized demonstrations and slapped a travel ban on many rights campaigners.

With his win in the 2018 vote an almost foregone conclusion, a large voter turnout would take on added significance, affirming el-Sissi’s candidacy as the people’s choice. His likely opponents — the list so far includes a prominent rights activist, a former prime minister and an opposition politician thrown out of parliament — are not expected to pose a serious challenge to him securing a second term.

Mohammed el-Garhy, the chief co-ordinator of the group that gathered the signatures, told a news conference Sunday that “the supreme goal of our campaign is to safeguard the Egyptian state.” He was alluding to the widespread conviction among el-Sissi’s supporters that his policies since 2013 have protected Egypt from the chaos and bloodshed seen in fellow Arab countries like Libya, Yemen or Syria.

The group has carried out a large-scale publicity campaign, with giant posters of the president looming over some of Cairo’s busiest roads. The group is called “So You Can Build It (Egypt),” a play on the mega projects that el-Sissi has undertaken since assuming office. These include the expansion of the Suez Canal, the construction of new cities, including a new administrative capital east of Cairo, a network of roads and low and middle-income housing projects.

El-Sissi has repeatedly dismissed criticism that these projects were ill-timed, a misplacement of scarce funds or too expensive, arguing that they provided jobs and contributed to overhauling the country’s rickety infrastructure at a time of an economic meltdown caused by the turmoil that followed a 2011 popular uprising. El-Sissi has also introduced ambitious and politically risky economic reforms, including the floatation of the Egyptian currency, a VAT tax and a reduction of subsidies on fuel and utilities like electricity and water.

El-Sissi’s 3 1/2 years in office have also seen an uptick in terror attacks by Islamic militants battling security forces in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula. On Saturday, el-Sissi repeated his vow that his military would use its “full range of violence” against the militants.

“We must, with God’s help end terrorism there (in Sinai),” he said Saturday in a ceremony marking the end of new tunnels under the Suez Canal to link mainland Egypt to Sinai.

Last month, militants in Sinai killed more than 300 worshippers praying at a mosque frequented by Sufis, followers of a mystical school of Islam that militants view as heretical. The president later gave the army and police a three-month deadline to “restore” security and stability in Sinai.

On Sunday, the Interior Ministry said police staged a pre-dawn raid on a Nile delta farm used by militants as a hideout, killing nine of them when they returned fire. Separately, it said police also busted a cell of Brotherhood-linked militants in Cairo, the capital, arresting nine and seizing arms, explosives and written material linking members of the cell to a July terrorist attack in the Greater Cairo area.

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