CAIRO — A top newspaper editor known to be close to President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is hinting in a column published on Sunday that the Egyptian leader should be allowed to rule beyond the maximum two, four-year terms set by the country's 2014 constitution.
Yasser Rizq, chairman of the state-owned al-Akhbar daily, did not explicitly call for amending the constitutional clause limiting the number of terms a president can serve, but argued that time is running short for the emergence of another leader who "can shoulder the responsibilities of a head of state in a country of Egypt's weight and prestige."
El-Sissi led the military's 2013 ouster of Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist president whose one-year rule proved divisive. He was elected to office a year later and, running virtually unopposed, won a second term in an election in March with 97 percent of the vote.
His rise to power in 2013 was greeted with popular adulation and hope, but he is believed to have lost much of that support by introducing far-reaching reforms to overhaul the economy that sent prices soaring beyond the reach of many Egyptians.
The latest hike in prices came last week when the government raised by up to 250 percent fares on the Cairo subway. On Saturday, there were scattered protests by commuters at several stations. At least 21 people were arrested after commuters chanted anti-government slogans, jumped over electronic ticket gates to avoid paying and scuffled with police to avoid arrest. They were the first known acts of protest against el-Sissi's economic policies.
A general-turned-president, el-Sissi has repeatedly said he would not stay in office any longer than Egyptians wanted him to and that he was not in favor of amending the constitutional limit on the number of terms a president can serve.
El-Sissi has also said that being a president was not something he sought, but that he was rather "summoned" by Egyptians to lead the nation at a time of an existential threat; political parlance for the upheavals that followed a 2011 uprising, the rule of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and the civil strife el-Sissi's supporters contend would have engulfed the country had Morsi stayed in power.
Suggestions that el-Sissi be allowed to stay in office beyond eight years are not new — they were made last year by loyal lawmakers and media figures before they abruptly ended — but Rizq's renewal of the topic carries additional weight because of his closeness to the president.
Rizq lamented in Sunday's carefully worded column the absence of qualified individuals emerging from political forces that Egyptians could rally around, and who would also enjoy the support of the military and other state institutions.
"The political field in the near-term future looks barren and arid at a time when the constitution limits a presidential term to four years," he wrote. "It's my belief that President el-Sissi, as well as public opinion, are worried about the future of leadership after the end of the second term."
"No one wants to constitutionalize absolute rule but, at the same time, no one is ready to accept that its clauses be the guillotine of the popular will," Rizq wrote. He said the concern over Egypt's political future is compounded by calls for reconciliation with the now-outlawed Brotherhood and attempts by supporters of Gamal Mubarak, son and one-time heir apparent of ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak, to return to the political scene.
Since 2013, el-Sissi has overseen the biggest crackdown on critics in living memory, jailing thousands of Morsi supporters as well as some of the iconic activists behind the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak. He has rolled back many of the freedoms won by the uprising, silenced most dissenting voices in the media and placed severe restrictions on civil society groups.
Authorities have intimidated or jailed potentially serious challengers in the March presidential election, leaving el-Sissi to run against an obscure politician who stepped into the race in the last minute to save the government the embarrassment of a one-candidate election.