Egypt president defends painful austerity measures

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CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's president zealously defended his economic policies on Sunday, saying he was left with no choice but to embrace painful austerity measures to revive an economy mauled by years of political turmoil and violence.

Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi was speaking at a youth conference a day after he expressed his displeasure over recent online postings urging him to step down over the economy. He said he was "upset" over the posts, which he said were inappropriate.

The #Sissi_leave hashtag surfaced this summer following steep price hikes for fuel, drinking water and electricity as part of austerity measures designed to overhaul the economy, still recovering from years of turmoil following the 2011 popular uprising.

"They have pushed us into being a nation of poverty, a nation of neediness, but when I begin working toward getting us out of this, I find the hashtag #Sissi — leave," he said. "Should I have been upset or not? I was upset. I was upset."

El-Sissi was first elected in 2014, a year after, as defense minister, he led the military's ouster of Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist who was freely elected but whose one year in office proved divisive. He has since taking office launched multibillion-dollar infrastructure, development and housing projects that he says will transform the country of some 96 million people.

He has also overseen the largest crackdown on dissent in Egypt's recent history, jailing thousands of Islamists as well as some secular pro-democracy activists, and rolling back many of the freedoms won following the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

In March, el-Sissi won a second, four-year term after running virtually unopposed.

The economic reform program has won el-Sissi lavish praise from Cairo's western backers and bankers and showed him as a leader who was prepared to adopt painful measures, like lifting state subsidies on basic items, regardless of the political cost, something his predecessors had not been able to do for fear of unrest or losing power. El-Sissi's policies, however, have made more difficult the plight of a majority of Egyptians who are now forced to cope with steep hikes in the price of everything from utilities and fuel to food and transportation.

El-Sissi has in the past told Egyptians not to listen to anyone but him and repeated that he would only listen to viewpoints different from his if they are based on thorough research. In his latest remarks, he repeated his frequent assertions about unnamed parties tirelessly working to undermine and destabilize the country.

Egypt, he warned Sunday, would not survive another "revolutionary" phase like that of 2011.

"Everything is linked to stability and security. I want us to develop an acute fear of instability," he said.

Addressing the same youth conference Sunday, el-Sissi warned that economic reform was open-ended and that he intended to continue down the same route. "I will press on because I don't have another path," declared the general-turned-president who routinely calls on Egyptians to endure hardships for the sake of their country and declares that only God will judge his actions.

With a touch of populism, el-Sissi said Sunday he was prepared to join Egyptian youths and go out to clean the streets. On Saturday, he said he was prepared to eat one meal a day for the rest of his life if that would help Egypt be strong and prosperous.

Seeking to assure Egyptians that his policies would soon bear fruit, he said Egypt will by June 2020 have a surplus of natural gas, complete a network of roads crisscrossing the country, finish the first phase of construction of nearly a dozen new cities and overhaul the railway network.

Along with the economic challenges, Egypt also faces an insurgency by Islamic militants in northern Sinai. El-Sissi said Sunday his security forces have made significant progress in the fight against insurgents but warned that future terror attacks could not be ruled out.

Along with battling militants in the peninsula bordering Gaza and Israel, security forces also struggle to secure the porous borders with neighboring Libya and Sudan, used by militants to smuggle weapons and fighters into Egypt and for cross-border attacks. On Sunday, he said security forces have over the past 18 months intercepted or destroyed some 2,000 vehicles carrying arms, ammunition or militants.

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