CAIRO (AP) — Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the former military chief who removed Egypt's Islamist president and who is now poised to win the post in elections this month, said the Muslim Brotherhood will never return as an organization, accusing it of using militant groups as cover to destabilize the country.
El-Sissi spoke in the first TV interview of his campaign, aired Monday, vowing that restoring stability and bringing development were his priorities. The comments were a seemingly unequivocal rejection of any political reconciliation with the Brotherhood, which was Egypt's most powerful political force until el-Sissi removed President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the group, last summer.
Since ousting Morsi, el-Sissi has been riding an overwhelming media frenzy lauding him as Egypt's savior, and his status as the country's strongest figure all but guarantees him a victory in the May 26-27 election. El-Sissi's only opponent in the race is leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, the third-place finisher in the 2012 election won by Morsi.
El-Sissi's comments were a stark signal of his intention to ensure the elimination of the 86-year-old Brotherhood as both a political and ideological force in the country. He is building on an unprecedented popular resentment of the group, after its rise to power in the last three years.
Asked whether the Brotherhood will no longer exist under his presidency, el-Sissi replied, "Yes. Just like that."
"It's not me that finished it, the Egyptians have. The problem is not with me," he said.
The Brotherhood and its Islamist allies won every election following the 2011 ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, dominating the parliament and capturing the presidency under Morsi. The Brotherhood's electoral strength was largely rooted in a widespread grassroots organization it had built up for decades despite being banned under Mubarak.
But after a year in office, millions joined protests demanding Morsi's removal, accusing his Brotherhood of monopolizing power and seeking to change the country's identity along the lines of Brotherhood ideology — prompting el-Sissi's ouster of Morsi.
Since then, there's been no sign of reconciliation between the sides. The Brotherhood and its allies have denounced Morsi's removal as a military coup that has wrecked democracy, rejecting the new government and persisting in a campaign of street protests.
Security forces have waged a ferocious crackdown on Morsi supporters, clashing with protesters. Hundreds have been killed and more than 16,000 members of the Brotherhood and other Islamists have been arrested. The Brotherhood's leader, Mohammed Badie, has been sentenced to death — though the sentence can be appealed — and he and Morsi and other senior Brotherhood figures face a string of trials. The government has branded the Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Under the weight of the crackdown, protests have waned.
At the same time, Islamic militant groups have stepped up bombings and shootings against police and the military in retaliation for Morsi's removal.
In the joint interview with two private Egyptian TV stations CBC and ONTV, el-Sissi directly accused the Brotherhood of being behind the campaign of bombings and shootings. He said the movement "created" Islamic militant groups to use as "covers to fight from behind ... to keep the movement away from any accusations." He said a senior Brotherhood leader had warned him that if he removed Morsi, extremist fighters from Afghanistan and elsewhere would come to Egypt to fight.
The Brotherhood denies any connection to militants.
He said the Brotherhood's ideology was based on "arrogance in religion" — and the presence of that strain of thought had destabilized Egyptian society for decades.
"The thought structure of these groups says that we are not true Muslims, and they believed conflict was inevitable because they consider us non-believers," he said. "It will not work for there to be such thinking again."
He appealed to the public to support the police and the armed forces in their fight against terrorism. He vowed to respond to demands by the police to boost their capabilities to fight violence and said the armed forces are poised to help the police in such a task.
The 59-year-old el-Sissi retired from the military in March with the rank of field marshal to launch his candidacy. The one-hour interview was his first direct address to the public since he declared his intention to run and after the start of the official campaigning on May 2.
His election campaign is likely to largely be made up of TV and media interviews and private meetings, with few street appearances, mainly because of security concerns. In the interview, he said two assassination plots against him have already been uncovered, without giving details.
A second part of the interview, likely to go into more details about his economic program, is to be aired on Tuesday.
El-Sissi's candidacy has also raised concerns among some secular activists over a return of the autocracy that reigned in Egypt under Mubarak, who was also a veteran of the military. A number of prominent secular activists have been arrested in recent months, several of them under a draconian new law banning all protests without a police permit.
El-Sissi defended the protest law, saying it was needed to prevent further instability and insisting that police will give permits to those who seek to hold peaceful demonstrations.
"We are talking about a country going to waste. People must realize this and support us. Whoever imagines otherwise, only wants to sabotage Egypt and this won't be allowed," he said, losing his temper for the first time during the interview.
"This chaos will bring it down, because of this irresponsible protesting," he said.
El-Sissi spent a part of the interview discussing his family, explaining that he met his wife as a teenager and promised her marriage when he was admitted to military college. He spoke fondly of her as a major supporter of his decision to run for president. She told him he had no choice, he said, telling him, "We of course love you, but this nation will be lost."
He revealed that his two of his sons work in the government, one as a member of the General intelligence and another in the powerful Administrative Oversight agency, a government monitoring organization. A third son applied to the foreign service and was twice rejected, he said. He also has a daughter.
U.S. trained el-Sissi said the military will not play a role in politics under his presidency and promised to consult with political factions. Asked if he will accept criticism, he responded with a smile, "I will put up with it" — but then said he won't accept "offenses."
In one Cairo neighborhood, Sayeda Zeinab, el-Sissi supporters organized showings of the interview at local coffeehouses, where dozens gathered to watch. During advertising breaks, they sang and clapped to pro-military anthems.
"After God, I worship him," 65-year-old Alia el-Sayed Saad said, raising two pictures of el-Sissi. "We are not ignorant, we can differentiate between the wicked and the honest."
Turnout at the café shows was not high however — and nearby coffeshops with TVs showing a soccer game were packed with larger crowds.
AP correspondents Mariam Rizk and Maggie Michael contributed to this report.