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Egypt’s Sisi tells media not to push for democratic reforms

The presidential hopeful’s government has been criticized for targeting journalists critical of the state

Egyptian presidential candidate Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the country’s former military chief, warned newspaper editors Thursday not to cover freedom-of-speech issues or press for other democratic reforms, as such actions could lead to protests that jeopardize national security.

Sisi is seen as the overwhelming favorite to win the May 26-27 vote.

Sisi made the remarks during a four-hour meeting with about 20 editors of Egypt’s leading newspapers. Parts of the meeting were aired on a private television network and published on news websites.

Sisi told the editors that freedoms must be balanced with national security concerns, and that the media should focus its efforts on rallying public support for “the strategic goal” of “preserving the Egyptian state.”

He also warned the editors against "scaring people" with coverage that "creates skepticism or uneasiness in society."

In reference to recent anti-government protests, Sisi 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 newspapers whose editors attended the meeting, while reporting the comments, focused their headlines on Sisi's remarks about plans to fight corruption and poverty.

Sisi 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."

"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.”

Journalists on trial

Egypt has been criticized for targeting media channels and journalists who broadcast news critical of the state. 

Three Al Jazeera English journalists — Peter Greste, Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy — have been incarcerated in Egypt's Tora prison for 131 days. Abdullah Elshamy, a correspondent for Al Jazeera Arabic, has been held without trial for 267 days.

Greste, Mohamed and Fahmy face charges of spreading false news and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Their trial has been adjourned until May 15.

Al Jazeera rejects all charges and accusations against its staff and insists that the journalists were put in prison for merely doing their jobs.

Sisi's rival, leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, said in a lengthy evening TV interview Thursday that he led opposition protests against Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood-backed president who Sisi ousted from office in July 2013 following mass protests against his leadership.

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.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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