Cairo — Egypt's president said Wednesday that excessive criticism of the government is contributing to attempts to bring down the state, telling Egyptians not to listen to anyone but him.
President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi did not go into specifics in an address broadcast live, saying only that he would "remove from the face of the Earth" anyone plotting to bring down the state.
In recent weeks, Egypt has seen startlingly public shows of anger over police abuses and brutality. Rights groups have documented arbitrary arrests, torture and disappearances. Even stalwartly pro-government TV commentators have raised alarm over a series of perceived miscarriages of justice, police brutality and economic problems — a shift from the near blanket avoidance of criticism in the past two years.
El-Sissi appeared angry as he addressed an audience that included public figures, youth groups and university students and some military officers.
"Please, don't listen to anyone but me. I am dead serious," he said sharply. "Be careful. No one should abuse my patience and good manners to bring down the state."
"I swear by God that anyone who comes near it, I will remove him from the face of the Earth," he said, then added, seeming to address those conspiring against the state, "What do you think you're doing? Who are you?"
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It is "still very early for open democratic practices, like criticizing and pushing (officials) out of office," he said, adding that democracy is being practiced but "under difficult circumstances, so let us safeguard Egypt."
As military chief, el-Sissi led the July 2013 overthrow of Egypt's first freely elected president, an Islamist whose divisive rule ignited mass protests. El-Sissi was elected president a year later in a landslide. Supporters largely cheered his government's crackdown on Islamists — jailing thousands and killing hundreds — and the arrests of dozens of secular activists, including leaders of the 2011 uprising.
El-Sissi devoted much of his 120-minute speech, his longest since coming to office in June 2014, to the threats Egypt faces and his efforts to spare it from the violence convulsing much of the region.
"What has been achieved in the last year and half was not achieved in 20 years before then," he said, referring to a series of infrastructure projects, including an expansion of the Suez Canal.
Listing Egypt's deep economic woes, he suggested that if 10 million Egyptians would donate one pound — about 10 cents — every day to the government, it would make a difference. "By God, if it were possible for me to be sold, I would sell myself," he said, then paused as he seemed to hold back tears.
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He also suggested for the first time that militants were behind the downing of a Russian passenger plane that crashed in Sinai on Oct. 31, killing all 224 people on board. The crash dealt a major blow to Egypt's vital tourism sector.
The extremist Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the crash, and Russia announced in November that a bomb brought down the aircraft. But Egyptian officials have insisted they must wait for the results from the international investigation.
"Those who downed the aircraft, what did they hope to achieve? Just to hit tourism?" el-Sissi said. "No, they also wanted to strike at our relations with Russia ... and, if they could, with the whole world, so we are left alone and isolated."
Egypt has been battling an IS-led insurgency in the Sinai that grew increasingly assertive after Morsi's overthrow. On Wednesday, el-Sissi acknowledged — also for the first time — that security forces had committed "excesses" in Sinai, saying it was difficult to combat terror while safeguarding people's rights.
"Am I happy about it? No," he said.