CAIRO (AP) — Returning to some of his favorite topics, Egypt's president on Saturday called on Egyptians to stand together against terrorism, angrily denounced the "evil people" plotting against his country and made a stern warning: There would be no comeback if Egypt fell to Islamic militants.
"Terrorism will not end unless we all stand together. Don't cover your eyes and pretend that it does not concern you," President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi told participants on the second and final day of a youth conference in the southern city of Aswan. "If Egypt is lost, it will not come back. Those who fall in the abyss never come back."
"Did Afghanistan ever come back? Did Somalia ever come back? Why do you think we can come back?"
El-Sissi also sought to debunk a cornerstone of the ideology of militants: Those who don't agree with their radical interpretation of Islam or oppose their actions would burn in hell.
"Leave us alone to live our lives and you are welcome to go to heaven," he said, addressing the militants. "You tell us that we are not good people and we will go to hell. Fine, but God's hell is enough, there is no need for you to subject us to your hell as well."
A general-turned-president when elected by a landslide in 2014, el-Sissi was the chief architect of ambitious and politically risky economic reforms introduced last year to kick start the country's stagnant economy and secure a $12 billion loan from the IMF. The reforms included floating the local currency and steeply hiking the price of fuel, utilities and a wide range of other basic goods and services. The reforms sent inflation soaring to more than 20 percent, but there has been no tangible sign of popular unrest over economic hardships.
El-Sissi has also overseen the arrest of thousands of Islamists and hundreds of secular activists following the military's 2013 ouster, which he led, of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood. His military and police, meanwhile, are fighting an increasingly emboldened Islamic insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula as authorities steadily erode freedoms won by the 2011 popular uprising that toppled the regime of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
El-Sissi said the Aswan meeting, the latest in a series with Egyptian youths, was meant to "counter" the evil people.
But with the next presidential election just 17 months away, these intensely publicized gatherings have enhanced his image to many Egyptians as a caring and compassionate leader devoted to bettering the lot of his 92 million people.
At times, el-Sissi tears up, becomes emotional or speaks at the top of his voice to make a point, a combination his critics have used to label him a populist or given to being melodramatic.
"Look here, all that I have and can offer is just one thing: Sincerity, honesty and honor," he said in one of Saturday's sessions. "Understand what I am saying, grasp it and pay attention because I have no interest except yours."
Also Saturday, el-Sissi spoke for the first time in months of the "evil people," an often repeated phrase widely interpreted as a reference to political Islam in general.
"May God shield us from the evil people, their plans and schemes to hurt us all and use us to prey on each other," he said, before he went to explain, albeit cryptically, of attempts to turn Egyptians against each other by exploiting the government's inability to provide jobs or adequate and reliable services because of its lack of funds.
"I wish someone will also tell you that we are poor, very, very poor," he said. "We will tell them that despite our poverty, we will move forward and grow."
Citing the case of Egypt's Nubians, an indigenous, Muslim but non-Arab community that mostly inhabits southern Egypt, he said authorities had to recently provide them with more services than they do elsewhere in the country following signs of unrest over the ownership of their ancestral lands.
"Yes, I did that because I discovered that someone is giving the people of Nubia the false impression that the state is neglecting them," el-Sissi said. "People of Nubia: We are all Egyptians ... even if we have to cut from our own flesh to give you, that will absolutely not be a problem."