CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's top presidential candidate, the former military chief, warned newspaper editors not to press issues of freedoms of speech and other rights or campaign for democratic reforms, saying demands and protests jeopardize national security and that full democracy is an "idealistic" goal that could take 25 years to reach.
Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi also said he would "walk away" if people rose up against him and demanded that he step down — a promise also once made by Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, who in the end refused to resign in the face of massive protests against him, prompting el-Sissi to remove him from power last summer.
El-Sissi is seen as the overwhelming favorite to win the May 26-27 vote.
So far in his campaign, he has heavily pushed the message that his priority is restoring stability and making "leaps" in development to reduce poverty after three years of turmoil and violence since the 2011 toppling of autocrat Hosni Mubarak. He has repeatedly said the public must get behind him and stop protests.
In a four-hour meeting with around 20 editors of Egypt's main newspapers, parts of which were aired on a private TV network Thursday and published on newspaper websites, el-Sissi told them that practice of freedoms must be balanced with national security and that the media should focus on rallying the public behind "the strategic goal" of "preserving the Egyptian state."
El-Sissi warned the editors against "scaring people" with coverage that "creates skepticism or uneasiness in society."
Speaking about protests, he said: "You write in the newspaper, 'No voice is louder than freedom of speech!' What is this? What tourist would come to a country where we have demonstrations like this? You know that there are millions of people and families who can't earn their living because of the protests. It is one of the manifestations of instability."
Most of the papers whose editors attended the meeting, while reporting the comments, focused their headlines on el-Sissi's remarks about plans to fight corruption and poverty and his readiness to leave power.
Al-Sissi also told the editors not to launch negative media campaigns against officials and instead give the new government time to work.
"Give officials a chance for, say, four months," he said. "If you have information or a subject you need to whisper in the ear (of officials), it is possible to do that without exposing it."
Referring to demands for reforms in government bodies, he said people call for "dismantling" institutions to reach democracy, but "you don't know that as you work to dismantle, you will find a mirage and that Egypt has been lost."
He gave the example of coverage of Egypt's chronic energy crisis. Shortages of fuel at power stations have caused rolling blackouts around the country for months, throughout the winter when electricity usage is lower, prompting warnings that they could worsen in the hot summer months. He said that instead of scaring people about the coming summer, newspapers should interview experts and propose alternatives on energy use.
Still, he said he was opposed to the past governments' lack of transparency, saying authorities must provide information to the people to counter negative reports. "Transparency is one of the basics of national security," he said.
El-Sissi told the editors that Egypt "cannot bear" more uneasiness. "You are making an idealistic demand in a situation that is very painful ... This is democracy?" he said. "I fear that while we are practicing (democracy), we won't find a nation."
"Our problem is that we call up images of Western democracies that have been stable for hundreds of years and drop them into our reality," he said, adding that it could take "20 or 25 years to reach a stage of complete democracy."
He said that he has spoken to Western officials about foreign funding to non-government organizations and that some of these groups seek to "topple the state."
El-Sissi also underlined that he depends on the masses' support to push through with his plans, and said if people rose up against him, "I will walk away" and not wait for them to "say it twice."
Also Thursday, el-Sissi's rival, leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi said in a lengthy evening TV interview that he led opposition protests against Morsi, the Islamist president, at a time el-Sissi was part of his rule.
Sabahi, who came in third in Egypt's 2012 presidential elections that Morsi won, defended pro-democracy efforts.
"Without democracy, we are repeating the old, failed tales we have seen a hundred times before," Sabahi said.