CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said on Friday that his first term in office had strengthened the state, and defended his tough austerity measures days ahead of a re-election vote in which the former military commander faces no serious opposition.
Sisi also said Islamic State militants would soon be defeated in the Sinai Peninsula as he visited troops battling the jihadists in a wide campaign there.
Polls will open on Monday when voters choose between Sisi and one little-known candidate who supports the former field marshal. All credible opponents dropped out in January citing intimidation by the authorities after the main challenger was jailed.
Sisi’s critics say he has cracked down harshly on dissent and that tough economic reforms have eroded his popularity. Supporters say such measures are needed to stabilise Egypt, which was rocked by years of unrest after protests toppled veteran leader Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
As military commander Sisi led the ouster of Egypt’s only competitively-elected leader, President Mohamed Mursi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who was toppled amid demonstrations against his rule in 2013 a year after taking power. Sisi took office with a landslide election victory a year later.
“The last four years have been a phase to strengthen the Egyptian state and its institutions, and build up a strong infrastructure,” Sisi said in a televised address to troops during his Friday visit to an air base in North Sinai.
“The economic measures carried out have been part of that consolidation of the state. I want to say to you that we are suffering, but that suffering is nothing compared to the collapse of the state,” he said, wearing military uniform.
Sisi was filmed sitting, chatting and eating with troops.
“God willing, we will come (here) to celebrate a total victory over the deviants of the age ... do no hesitate to use all force against them,” he said, referring to Sinai militants.
Last November Sisi ordered the armed forces to crush Islamic State after an attack on a mosque that killed more than 300 people, the deadliest such incident in Egypt’s history.
Egypt’s military launched its most publicised operation yet last month against the jihadists, who have waged years of attacks on the police and troops in North Sinai.
The military says its current operation in Sinai has featured unprecedented coordination between the army, navy and air force. However, analysts and diplomats say they have seen little evidence of new tactics that would clear North Sinai of the militants.
Residents in the impoverished desert region of North Sinai have in recent years been displaced by fighting and by the clearing of large populated areas to create buffer zones.
The militants in Sinai intensified their attacks after the ouster of Mursi. Authorities have arrested hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters since Sisi swept to office in 2014 on promises of restoring security in Egypt.
Sisi is effectively guaranteed next week to win a second four-year term, with voters hoping he can improve Egypt’s struggling economy.
Sisi has said he wanted more candidates to run for office, and the election commission says the vote will be free and fair.
The International Monetary Fund, which agreed a $12 billion loan with Egypt in late 2016, has praised the government’s austerity measures and a devaluation of the pound currency, saying they have improved some economic indicators, though many Egyptians still feel worse off.
Editing by Gareth Jones and Peter Graff