CAIRO - Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi says he does not favour amending the constitution to extend term limits, but appeared to leave open the possibility of his remaining in power beyond two four-year terms.
El-Sissi was elected to office in 2014, a year after he led the military's ouster of a freely elected but divisive president, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. He is expected to seek a second term in office in elections next year, but has yet to make a formal announcement.
He is virtually assured of victory, as the government has waged a wide-scale crackdown on dissent. The Muslim Brotherhood, which won a series of free elections after the 2011 uprising, is now outlawed as a terrorist group, and tens of thousands of people, including many prominent secular activists, have been jailed. Unauthorized protests are banned, and the government has blocked hundreds of critical websites.
El-Sissi's comments, made in an interview with CNBC television that aired late Monday, were his first to publicly detail his thoughts on the constitutional clause limiting presidents to eight years in office.
Loyal lawmakers and pro-government media figures have in recent months been calling for the constitution to be amended to lengthen presidential terms beyond four years, arguing that they are not long enough to allow el-Sissi to fully implement his ambitious plans to overhaul the economy, upgrade infrastructure and crush an insurgency by Islamic militants.
"I am with preserving two, four-year terms and not changing it," he said. "We will not interfere with it."
But he later appeared to give himself some leeway, saying he did not want amendments "in this period," and suggesting he might remain in power if it were in accordance with "the people's will."
"It does not suit me as a president to stay one day (in office) against the will of the Egyptian people ... This is not just talk for television, these are values I embrace and principles I am keen on."
El-Sissi's supporters see him as a strong leader who has brought stability to the country after years of unrest following the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
But international and local right groups say his government is the most repressive in recent history, with security forces operating with impunity and ignoring constitutional guarantees of rights and freedoms. Egypt's parliament is packed with el-Sissi supporters, and the private media is monopolized by pro-government figures.
Egypt has been ruled by men of military background like el-Sissi for all but about two years since a group of young officers seized power 65 years ago in a coup that toppled the monarchy. El-Sissi's military predecessors ran the country as outright dictators, or autocrats hiding behind a facade of a democratic system.
El-Sissi says he is building a "civilian and democratic" state and embraces a wider interpretation of human rights that includes the right to education, health care and housing.
El-Sissi's comments came just hours after a prominent rights lawyer declared he would run against him next year.
"Egypt is in crisis after four years of rule by Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi," Khaled Ali, the lawyer, told a news conference Monday. "We have the right to have democratic elections ... (but) we are expecting a crackdown and repression."
It remains to be seen whether Ali will be able to run, as he faces misdemeanour charges for allegedly making a vulgar gesture in public. He is appealing a September conviction of indecency in what is widely seen as a politically motivated court case. A higher court is due to hold its first hearing on the case Nov. 8. If his conviction is upheld, he would be ineligible to run.