Egypt’s presidential frontrunner Abdel Fattah al-Sisi sought to ease concerns Monday that he would restrict freedoms, insisting that democratic principles and human rights were guaranteed under the new constitution.
Sisi, who is expected to easily win the May 26-27 election, said last week that democratic aspirations expressed in mass protests since 2011 were affecting national security and slowing a much-needed economic recovery.
“The future of freedoms and democracy is protected by the constitution which the people agreed on,” Sisi told a gathering of intellectuals and thinkers on Monday, a statement from his campaign office said.
Egyptians adopted a new constitution in January after a previous version was suspended when Sisi ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July last year.
Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement had boycotted a referendum on the new constitution.
Sisi said he understood the concerns of intellectuals, saying there was “no place for a religious or military state” in Egypt.
“It is always a difficult equation a state faces: how to achieve sufficient security that is satisfactory enough for the people without breaching the principles of democracy and human rights and without oppressing the innocent,” the retired field marshal said.
At a round-table discussion with Egyptian journalists last week, Sisi had warned that democratic aspirations were hindering national security.
“You write in the newspaper, ‘No voice is louder than freedom of speech!’ What is this?” Sisi asked them.
“What tourist would come to a country where we have demonstrations like this? Are you forgetting that there are millions of people and families who can’t earn their living because of the protests? It is one of the manifestations of instability.”
He also said that given the situation in Egypt, which cannot be compared to Western democracies, it could take “20 to 25 years to achieve true democracy” in the Arab world’s most populous country.
Since 2011, Egypt has seen two presidents ousted after mass street protests, a deadly crackdown on protesters and militant attacks that have left it deeply polarised and the economy in a shambles.
The situation was further aggravated when the interim authorities installed by Sisi passed a law banning all but police-sanctioned protests.
Several prominent figures from the 2011 anti-Hosni Mubarak uprising have been jailed for breaking the protest law, and a brutal government crackdown on Morsi supporters has killed more than 1,400 people since his ouster.