CAIRO (AP) — Up for re-election in less than two weeks, Egypt’s president on Thursday took center stage at a televised ceremony commemorating the country’s martyrs, declaring his readiness to personally join the battle against militants and decorating soldiers and families of fallen ones.
“I swear by God that I am ready to don combat fatigues and fight side by side” with the security forces, said Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a general-turned-president. “We either live together, or die together,” he added.
El-Sissi has yet to do any traditional campaigning for the March 26-28 election, such as addressing rallies or doing TV ads. With his win all but certain, he has apparently opted instead for televised appearances — Thursday’s ceremony lasted about five hours — in which he presides over official functions during which he addresses the nation.
With the outcome of the election a foregone conclusion — el-Sissi’s only challenger is a little-known politician who supports him — he and his supporters have been tirelessly urging voters to come out and cast their ballots since a high turnout will accord the vote legitimacy.
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In comments made Wednesday, he said he would rather win a third of the vote with a good turnout than every vote with a low turnout. A good turnout would contribute to Egypt’s stability and freedom, he said. Voting for Egyptian expatriates begins Friday.
With el-Sissi not campaigning, the only sign of an imminent election is the tens of thousands of banners bearing the incumbent’s image that have sprung up across the country.
Banners for his challenger, Moussa Mustafa Moussa, number only in the dozens in Cairo, a city of some 18 million people.
“What is happening, to be exact, is a one-man referendum,” Abdullah el-Sinnawy, a political analyst and one-time el-Sissi supporter, wrote Thursday in the independent Al-Shorouk daily.
In Thursday’s ceremony, a visibly moved el-Sissi listened as mothers and widows remembered their loved ones who fell in the fight against militants. He warmly greeted them, briefly chatting with each one or, in some cases, placing a kiss on their heads.
He hugged the children of the fallen soldiers and carried one of them, a small girl in military uniform, across the hall and sat her next to him amid applause. Later, a boy, also in military fatigues, joined him.
Photos later released by the presidency showed el-Sissi feeding cookies to the two children as their mothers looked on during a break from the ceremony.
His patriotism, of which an extreme version has swept Egypt under his rule, was also on display Thursday,
Of the fallen, el-Sissi said: “It’s a price that is dear to us, but not too dear for the sake of Egypt.” He has also warned that the whole Arab world would suffer if Egypt was to fall in the hands of militants.
“We are 100 million. We are the heart of the (Arab) nation.”
Egypt’s security forces last month launched an all-out offensive against militants, deploying tens of thousands of troops and police backed by fighter-jets, helicopter gunships, navy vessels and tanks in Sinai and in the western desert along the border with Libya. Dozens of militants and 16 soldiers have been killed in the fighting since.
Egypt has been battling Islamic militants for years, but the insurgency gathered steam and grew deadlier after the 2013 ouster by the military, then led by el-Sissi, of Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist president. Morsi was Egypt’s first freely elected leader whose year in office proved divisive.