Egypt’s El Sisi makes rare plea to youth

Abdel Fattah El Sisi, seen as certain to become Egypt’s next president in elections starting on May 26, has been taken to task, even by supporters, for failing to reach out to the large youth vote.

CAIRO // Egypt’s former military chief has made a rare appeal to the country’s youth trying to win support among a key bloc that he admitted he is struggling to reach ahead of this month’s presidential election.

Abdel Fattah El Sisi, seen as certain to become Egypt’s next president in elections starting on May 26, has been taken to task, even by supporters, for failing to reach out to the large youth vote.

Many youth groups have been critical of the military’s management of the transition following the downfall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 – and the subsequent crackdown on dissent after Mr El Sisi removed the Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, from power last summer.

In his comments on Monday during an interview with Sky News Arabia – he gave a nod to revolutionary youth groups, but also underlined his message that Egypt now needs stability – which he has repeatedly said means an end to protests.

“They must be sure they are hugely appreciated not only by me. But I can’t get it to them frankly,” he said when asked about the youth. He called their role in bringing about change “unforgettable.”

“But the circumstances are hard for all of us. Recognise this, and stand by Egypt now and in the future,” he said. He said he wants the youth groups to prepare to be future leaders, adding that if elected he would offer them positions as aides to governors, ministers and himself – though made no mention of naming them as actual ministers.

Since removing Morsi, Mr El Sisi has rode a wave of nationalist fervour praising him as a savior for removing Islamists from office, after many complained they were monopolising power and seeking to change the country’s identity. His popularity is also assisted by staunchly supportive media and the perception that the military is the country’s only stable institution after years of turmoil.

But he has antagonised many of the youth groups, many of whom also opposed Morsi. The crackdown on Islamists since Mr Morsi’s removal has widened to include secular and non-Islamist youth leaders and activists who criticised the military-backed heavy-handedness on dissent. Several of the most prominent activists in the uprising against Mr Mubarak are now in jail on trial for breaking new anti-protest laws. Some have also left the country.

Also, Mr El Sisi has not addressed in his campaign youth demands for social justice and equitable distribution of resources – or the issue of retribution for the hundreds of people killed during clashes with security or holding old regime officials accountable for past abuses.

According to official estimates, around 37 million of Egypt’s 53 million voters are between the age of 18-40. In a referendum last December, an amended constitution passed by a huge margin of around 98 per cent – widely seen as a show of support for Mr El Sisi – but youth turnout was reportedly startlingly low.

“His weakest point is the youth,” wrote Karem Mahmoud, a columnist with the Al Tahrir newspaper. “It seems the man himself doesn’t care much for that gap or he realises it well but wants to turn around it cunningly instead of dealing with it directly.”

By contrast, Mr El Sisi’s sole rival in the race, leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi has much appeal among youth groups, who are largely the ones behind his campaign and who have been pressing for a debate between Mr El Sisi and Mr Sabahi.

Sabahi, who came in third in the 2012 presidential election won by Morsi, is lauded as the “revolutionary candidate.” He promised to amend a controversial protest law that is seen as restricting protests and promised to release most of the prominent activists held because of it.

*Associated Press

Published: May 13, 2014 04:00 AM

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