CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's former military chief made a rare appeal Monday to the country's youth who were behind calls for regime change since 2011, trying to win support among a key bloc in this month's presidential election that he admitted he is struggling to reach.
Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, seen as certain to become Egypt's next president in the May 26-27 vote, has been taken to task, even by supporters, for failing to reach out to the large youth vote.
Many youth groups have been critical of the military's management of the transition following the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 — and the subsequent crackdown on dissent after el-Sissi's ouster last summer of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.
In his comments Monday during an interview with Sky News Arabia — he gave a nod to revolutionary youth groups, but also underlined his message that Egypt now needs stability — which he has repeatedly said means an end to protests.
"They must be sure they are hugely appreciated not only by me. But I can't get it to them frankly," he said when asked about the youth. He called their role in bringing about change "unforgettable."
"But the circumstances are hard for all of us. Recognize this, and stand by Egypt now and in the future," he said. He said he wants the youth groups to prepare to be future leaders, adding that if elected he would offer them positions as aides to governors, ministers and himself — though made no mention of naming them as actual ministers.
Since removing Morsi, el-Sissi has rode a wave of nationalist fervor praising him as a savior for removing Islamists from office, after many complained they were monopolizing power and seeking to change the country's identity. His popularity is also assisted by staunchly supportive media and the perception that the military is the country's only stable institution after years of turmoil.
But he has antagonized many of the youth groups, many of whom also opposed Morsi. The crackdown on Islamists since Morsi's ouster has widened to include secular and non-Islamist youth leaders and activists who criticized the military-backed heavy-handedness on dissent. Several of the most prominent activists in the uprising against Mubarak are now in jail on trial for breaking new anti-protest laws. Some have also left the country.
Also, el-Sissi has not addressed in his campaign youth demands for social justice and equitable distribution of resources — or the issue of retribution for the hundreds of people killed during clashes with security or holding old regime officials accountable for past abuses.
According to official estimates, around 37 million of Egypt's 53 million voters are between the age of 18-40. In a referendum last December, an amended constitution passed by a huge margin of around 98 percent — widely seen as a show of support for el-Sissi — but youth turnout was reportedly startlingly low.
"His weakest point is the youth," wrote Karem Mahmoud, a columnist with the Al-Tahrir newspaper. "It seems the man himself doesn't care much for that gap or he realizes it well but wants to turn around it cunningly instead of dealing with it directly."
By contrast, el-Sissi's sole rival in the race, leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi has much appeal among youth groups, who are largely the ones behind his campaign and who have been pressing for a debate between el-Sissi and Sabahi.
Sabahi, who came in third in the 2012 presidential election won by Morsi, is lauded as the "revolutionary candidate." He promised to amend a controversial protest law that is seen as restricting protests and promised to release most of the prominent activists held because of it.
The 59-year-old Sabahi has also outscored el-Sissi in his campaign by traveling around the country, meeting with factory workers, farmers and youth groups.
El-Sissi, also 59, has run a largely closed-door campaign, with no street appearance so far because of security fears. The retired military chief has said two assassination plots against him have already been uncovered.
Instead, he has relied on interviews and closed-door meetings with supporters. He has met in sessions with women, businessmen, professional groups, pensioners, tribal leaders and writers and journalists. He only met with youth groups Sunday, over a week into the 3-week campaign.
On Monday, el-Sissi also opened a new tactic, using a video link to address supporters in the southern city of Assiut. 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, and had a large support base for Morsi.
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 am talking to the youth that I see before me, who may think there is no hope. I tell you there is hope God willing," he said.
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 Morsi on July 3, security forces have waged 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 Brotherhood is behind terrorism. At a press conference, he showed alleged confessions by militants, two of whom said their cells had received funds from Brotherhood members or allies.
The Brotherhood has denied any link to militant groups 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.
Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim said security forces have uncovered 40 "terrorist cells" since April.
He aired confessions of five alleged militants, saying they had masterminded attacks that killed five senior police in the greater Cairo area. The contents of the confessions could not be independently confirmed.
One of the alleged militants, who identified himself as Abdullah Hussein, said he had fought in Syria's civil war alongside rebels, then returned to Egypt three months ago and plotted attacks.
Associated Press writer Maggie Michael contributed to this report