Egypt’s El Sisi: ‘In 2014, I begged the interim president to run in my place’

The Egyptian president has repeatedly said he never aimed for top office and would have preferred to stay as defence minister

A handout picture made available on June 8, 2014 by the Egyptian presidency shows former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (L) shaking hands with outgoing interim president Adly Mansour (R) after signing the handing over of power document in Cairo. Sisi was sworn in as Egypt's president, formalising his de facto rule since he deposed the elected Islamist last year and crushed his supporters.  AFP PHOTO / HO / EGYPTIAN PRESIDENCY == RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / EGYPTIAN PRESIDENCY" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS == (Photo by - / EGYPTIAN PRESIDENCY / AFP)

Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah El Sisi said on Thursday that he had “begged” the country’s interim president Adly Mansour to run for president at the end of his one-year in office back in2014, but the career judge declined, saying he had had enough.

Mr El Sisi, who ran for office in 2014 and is now serving a second term, has repeatedly said he was reluctant to take the helm, mostly because the challenge to lead a country of 100 million people with seemingly endless problems was too daunting.  But, he had never before said that he urged the silver-haired Mr Mansour to run for the land’s highest office.

“I was telling him for months on end that the [interim] year is almost over and that he should run [for president] while I stay in my place [as defence minister]. I do what can be done for the sake of Egypt and his sake,” Mr El Sisi told a gathering of several hundred, including Mr Mansour, in a ceremony marking the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday this weekend.

“He said ‘impossible! This is it, enough!’”

As defence minister, Mr El Sisi led the military’s removal on July 3, 2013, of Mohammed Morsi, a divisive president who hailed from the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. His removal followed mass protests against his rule that began on June 30.

After months of speculations on his plans, Mr El Sisi ran for office in 2014. Last year, he won a second, four-year term, running virtually unopposed after several potentially serious candidates were either imprisoned or dropped out of the race. His only challenger was a little-known politician and supporter.

Earlier this year, voters ratified constitutional amendments that extended Mr El Sisi’s current term by two years and allowed him, if he chooses, to run again in 2024 for a six-year term. Additionally, the amendments significantly bolstered his powers, giving him control over the judiciary and enshrining the military as the ultimate guarantor of political life.

The amendments were adopted by an overwhelming majority. About 3 million voters rejected the changes to 23.4 million in favour.

“If you think that June 30 and July 3 were about a power grab, then you are doing an injustice to the idea behind them as well as the values and principles for which we took a stand. If you think that whole thing was for me to get where I am now, then I am worse than they are,” he said, alluding to the Brotherhood. “It is not about a president and a regime, at least for me … it’s about building a nation, defending and safeguarding it.”

Mr El Sisi has, since taking office, embarked on a high-octane drive to upgrade the country’s faltering infrastructure, build new cities and an extensive network of roads. He has also adopted ambitious economic reforms, including a currency devaluation and lifting state subsidies on key commodities, which triggered steep price rises.

He has also overseen the dismantling of the Brotherhood, imprisoning its leaders and thousands of its members and supporters, while taking action on critics, bringing the media under strict government oversight and blocking hundreds of online sites, including independent news outlets.

Last week, Mr El Sisi urged parliament, an overwhelmingly pro-government chamber, to thoroughly investigate corruption allegations and publicise its findings. He said his actions and those of his government should not be exempt from scrutiny.

Parliament this week referred a prominent opposition lawmaker, Ahmed Tantawi, to the chamber’s ethics committee – the first step toward possible expulsion – after he shared a video in which he proposed far-reaching political reforms, including early presidential elections in 2022 in which Mr El Sisi does not run and rescinding the constitutional amendments adopted earlier this year.

Mr Tantawi said that the Egyptian leader’s call for more accountancy and transparency is what  encouraged him to propose political reforms.