Egypt: El-Sissi speaks to rally by video link in presidential campaign that avoids the streets

The Associated Press

Egypt's Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, center, greets a Chinese photographer as he leaves a press conference at the interior ministry headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, May 12, 2014. Egypt's top security official has sought to build claims that the Muslim Brotherhood is backing terrorism, showing alleged confessions of militants saying the received funds from members of the group to attack police and the military. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

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By SARAH EL DEEB, Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's former military chief used a video link to address supporters in the south of the country Monday, opening a new tactic in his campaign for the presidency that has avoided street appearances for security reasons.

Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the 59-year old retired military chief who removed the country's elected Islamist president following mass protests, is the front-runner in the elections scheduled for May 26-27.

But so far, el-Sissi has largely relied on interviews and closed-door meetings with supporters in his campaign, given the tensions swirling around him. He has not had a single street appearance since the official campaigning began in May 3. He has said two assassination plots against him have already been uncovered.

In contrast, el-Sissi's single sole rival in the race, leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, who made his first bid for office in 2012, has been traveling around the country, meeting with factory workers, farmers and youth groups.

El-Sissi appeared unrivalled in his access to resources and media coverage, with most TV stations and newspapers lauding him as the man who saved Egypt from Islamists who were seeking to monopolize power. Still, some supporters have raised concerns that his remote campaign is isolating him, particularly from the youth vote.

On Monday, El-Sissi appeared via video link to a popular rally organized by supporters in the southern city of Assiut, his first such appearance in any of the multiple rallies that his backers have been holding the past week.

His singling out of southern Egypt was significant — the area is hugely underdeveloped and makes up for a large chunk of migrants to the capital and other cities.

But during his short speech via videoconference, he also addressed the youth, saying he is targeting them with his plans to develop the south with investments and jobs.

"When I talk about investment, I was talking the youth that I see before me, who may think there is no hope. I tell you there is hope God willing," he said in his address, aired on TV stations.

The crowd broke out with chants of "With our souls and blood we defend you, el-Sissi" — though they were drowned out by the organizers' version of the chant through loudspeakers, "With love and work, el-Sissi is the hope."

Since the military ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi on July 3, security forces have been waging a heavy crackdown on Morsi's supporters, particularly his Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time, Islamic militants have escalated a campaign of bombings and shootings against police and the military.

On Monday, the interior minister — who heads the security forces — sought to bolster the government's claims that the Muslim Brotherhood is behind terrorism, showing journalists the alleged confessions of militants saying they received funds from members of the group to attack police and the military.

The Brotherhood has denied any link to the wave of militant attacks on security forces, and says the government accusations are intended to justify authorities' drive to eradicate it.

Egypt's interim government has branded the group a terrorist organization and moved to crush continuing protests by Morsi supporters, arresting more than 16,000 and killing hundreds.

Militant violence first flared in the restive Sinai Peninsula but has since spread to the capital Cairo and cities of the Nile Delta, including bombings of police positions and assassinations of senior officers. Two groups have claimed responsibility for most attacks — the al-Qaida-inspired Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, and a newer group called Ajnad Misr, or Egypt's Soldiers.

At a press conference Monday, Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim said security forces have uncovered 40 "terrorist cells" since April and proclaimed that authorities are in a "decisive stage in curbing terrorism."