CAIRO — Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi on Monday confirmed he will run for a new term in elections scheduled for December, entering the race as the clear favorite and as his government wrestles with rising inflation and mounting debt.
Egypt will hold a presidential election over three days on December 10-12, with a runoff on January 8-10 if no candidate secures more than 50 percent of the vote.
“As I have responded to the people’s call before, I heed the call now and announce my intention to run and complete the dream in a new presidential term,” Sissi, 68, told a cheering crowd at an event at a megaproject in the desert east of Cairo.
State-aligned television showed thousands of people celebrating the announcement on ready-built stages across the country.
Sissi confirmed his candidacy at the end of a three-day national conference called the “Story of Homeland” attended by the country’s leading politicians and broadcast by Egypt’s Extra News television channel, which has close ties to Egyptian security agencies.
Extra News showed thousands of Sissi’s supporters gathered on the streets of Cairo on Monday evening, with many waving Egyptian flags. As the conference neared its end, several parliamentarians present stood up and called on Sissi to offer his candidacy.
“I promise you, god willing, that it will be an extension of our common quest for the sake of Egypt and its people,” Sissi said.
A handful of politicians have already announced their bids to run for the country’s highest post, but none poses a serious challenge to Sissi, who has ruled the country since 2014 and has faced criticism from the West over his country’s human rights record.
Among the challengers is Ahmed Altantawy, a former lawmaker and critic of the current government. Without parliamentary backing, the 44-year-old will need to collect 25,000 nominations from Egyptians across at least 15 governorates by October 14 to be eligible.
A handful of other party leaders have said they had already gathered the necessary 20 nominations from parliament.
Altantawy has repeatedly accused the regime of harassing and detaining his supporters, preventing them from filing nominations and tapping his phone.
Altantawy has branded himself the “rule of law” candidate, as his campaign posts videos of him accompanying supporters to registry offices.
“In the end, they will not be able to say ‘sorry, you don’t have enough nominations,'” he told supporters Sunday.
In a video shared by his campaign, dozens chanted “bread, freedom, social justice” — the popular rallying cry of the 2011 revolution that ousted longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak.
Sissi, a former defense minister, led the military overthrow of an elected but divisive Islamist president in 2013 amid street protests against his one-year rule. Since then, authorities have launched a major crackdown on dissent. Thousands of government critics have been silenced or jailed, mainly Islamists but also many prominent secular activists, including many of those behind the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak.
He was first elected in 2014 and reelected in 2018 for a second four-year term. Constitutional amendments, passed in a referendum in 2019, added two years to his second term, and allowed him to run for a third, six-year term.
Egypt has been hit hard by years of austerity, and more recently, the fallout from the war in Ukraine, with its pound losing more than 50% of its value against the dollar in the last 18 months. The country is the world’s largest wheat importer and has traditionally imported most of its grain from eastern Europe.
‘Progress at cost of hunger’
Sissi announced his candidacy at the end of the three-day conference, where remarks he made earlier ruffled feathers among Egyptians, buckling under the weight of record-breaking 39.7-percent inflation.
He touted the government’s plans and projects, while repeatedly demanding that Egyptians must make sacrifices as price hikes continue.
“Don’t you Egyptians dare say you would rather eat than build and progress,” Sissi said Sunday. “If the price of the nation’s progress and prosperity is to go hungry and thirsty, then let us not eat or drink.”
“If construction, development and progress come at the cost of hunger and deprivation, never say ‘we would rather eat,'” Sissi said.
In an apparent veiled reference to China, he cited a country that became a “great power” after “25 million people died of hunger.”
Some reacted on social media, where formerly outspoken Egyptians have learned to self-censor after years of arrests related to online content.
“I’m in shock, usually we get electoral promises, even if they’re fake, but now he’s offering us a famine,” one user wrote.
On Sunday, Sissi sought to discredit the opposition, arguing he could “destroy the country… by handing out cannabis, 1,000 Egyptian pounds ($32) and Tramadol to 100,000 poor people.”
Even before the current crisis, a third of Egypt’s 105-million-strong population had lived below the poverty line, with another third vulnerable to falling into poverty, according to the World Bank.
Experts say Sissi is set on securing a third term before enacting a new currency devaluation that would further obliterate Egyptians’ purchasing power.
The upcoming election was initially expected in the spring of 2024.
The pound has lost half its value since March 2022, shooting prices upward in the import-dependent economy.
Foreign debt has soared to a record high of $165.4 billion this year, which experts say has been used to fund “vanity” megaprojects including roads, bridges, and the new $58-billion capital.
The Egyptian government is now the second most at risk of defaulting on its debt, after war-torn Ukraine, according to Bloomberg.