Feb 13, 11:02 AM EST

Amid multitude of woes, Egypt leader says democracy is back



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CAIRO (AP) -- Egypt's president said Saturday that his country has established democratic and constitutional rule after years of turmoil following the 2011 uprising, but rights groups say he has presided over an unprecedented crackdown on dissent.

President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi declared the completion of Egypt's transition to democratic rule in a 32-minute address to parliament, a 596-member chamber packed with his supporters.

In practices reminiscent of Egypt's past autocratic regimes, state television labeled the president's speech "historic" before it started, and some lawmakers, in a show of patriotism, placed Egypt's red, black and white flags before them in the chamber. Several others greeted el-Sissi's arrival in the chamber with shouts of "We love you, Mr. President!"

When his speech was later interrupted by the same chant, he replied: "I love you too!"

El-Sissi acknowledged that the country is still struggling to rebuild its economy and combat Islamic extremists, but said it had succeeded in restoring representative government.

"From this place, under parliament's dome, the Egyptian people declare to the entire world that they have laid the foundation of a democratic system and rebuilt constitutional institutions," he said in a speech that largely consisted of generalities and was repeatedly interrupted by applause.

The former general led the 2013 military overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected and first Islamist leader, amid mass protests against his divisive yearlong rule.

Since then, the government has waged a massive crackdown on dissent, jailing thousands of Islamists as well as several prominent secular activists who led the 2011 revolt that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. A draconian law passed in November 2013 prohibits all unauthorized protests.

Over the past week, Egypt has faced allegations that security forces were behind the abduction, torture and killing of an Italian researcher who disappeared on Jan. 25, the fifth anniversary of the 2011 uprising, when police were out in force to prevent any demonstrations. Egypt's Interior Ministry has denied the police had any involvement in the killing and insists it was a criminal act, but the incident has strained ties with Rome.

Egypt has also seen protests this week against police brutality held by the doctors' syndicate, after two doctors were allegedly beaten up by police in a Cairo hospital. Anger at police brutality was one of the main grievances behind the 2011 uprising.

El-Sissi did not mention either incident, and commended the police on "their care for the security and stability of the nation and the protection of its people."

"We must be aware that there are those waiting in the wings who don't want this nation to be an exception to the fate of some nations in our turbulent region and to hinder our national project for development and stability," he said.

Egypt has been battling an insurgency led by a local affiliate of the extremist Islamic State group based in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula. Militant attacks, mainly targeting security forces, have spiked since Morsi's ouster.

A military officer and a soldier were killed Saturday while dismantling an explosive device in northern Sinai, military spokesman Brig. Gen. Mohammed Samir said on his official Facebook page. He said another soldier was wounded in the incident.

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