Egypt’s Sisi visits Sinai ahead of poll, says militants almost defeated

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People walk in front of a banner supporting President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's re-election hanging in a clothes market near the canal of Port Said, Egypt March 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

CAIRO (Reuters) – Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said on Friday that militants in the Sinai Peninsula would soon be defeated as he visited troops there days ahead of an election that is set to grant him a second term, state news agency MENA reported.

People walk in front of a banner supporting President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s re-election hanging in a clothes market near the canal of Port Said, Egypt March 18, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
Polls will open on Monday when voters choose between Sisi and one little-known candidate who supports the former field marshal. All serious opposition pulled out in January citing intimidation after the main challenger was jailed.

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Sisi has said he wanted more candidates to run for office, and the election commission says the vote will be free and fair.

Last November Sisi ordered the armed forces to crush Islamic State after an attack on a mosque that killed more than 300 people, in the deadliest such incident in Egypt’s history.

In February, Egypt’s military launched its most publicized operation yet against the jihadists, who have waged years of attacks on the police and troops.

MENA said Sisi sat and chatted with pilots and troops on Friday during his visit to an air base in North Sinai, a restive desert region where Islamists have been holed up for years.

“Soon we will come here to celebrate victory over the deviants of the age,” MENA quoted him as saying, referring to the jihadists.

SINAI ATTACKS
Egypt’s military says its current operation against the militants in Sinai has featured unprecedented coordination between the army, navy and air force. However, analysts and diplomats say they have seen little evidence of new tactics that would clear North Sinai of the militants.

The militants in Sinai intensified their attacks after the ouster by Sisi and the military in 2013 of Egypt’s first freely-elected president, Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Sisi was elected in a landslide vote a year later.

Sisi’s critics say his presidency has brought a harsh crackdown on dissent, but supporters say such measures are needed to stabilise Egypt, which was rocked by years of unrest after protests toppled veteran leader Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Authorities have arrested hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters since Sisi, a former general, swept to office in 2014 on promises of restoring security in Egypt.

Sisi is virtually guaranteed next week to win a second four-year term, with voters hoping he can improve Egypt’s struggling economy.

The International Monetary Fund, which agreed a $12 billion loan with Egypt in late 2016, has praised the government’s austerity measures and a devaluation of the pound currency, saying they have improved some economic indicators, though many Egyptians still feel worse off.

Reporting by Mostafa Hashem, John Davison; Editing by Gareth Jones

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