On Monday and Tuesday night, Egyptians tuned in to watch the first televised interview with their likely future leader, looking for insight into a candidate who remains an enigma to many despite being the presumed next president for months.
Lasting more than five hours, the interview with former military chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi comes ahead of summer elections. Usually dressed in military attire, he has cultivated an image as a strong, uncompromising leader committed to the protection of the Egyptian people, and TV stations have been awash in militaristic videos of support. But for much of the interview Mr. Sisi, dressed in a blue suit and tie, cut a genial figure, discussing soft topics such as his family.
He used the two-part interview to quash speculation over possible reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest Islamist movement, and lay the groundwork for austerity measures by sketching out the dire state of the Egyptian economy.
Calling on citizens to unite and put an end to ongoing protests and strikes, he asked Egyptians to work harder and longer to save the country’s faltering economy.
The interview dominated local newspaper headlines Wednesday morning. “Sisi: We are in the moment of rescuing a nation," read the headline on state-owned newspaper Al-Akhbar.
Shutting out the Brotherhood
Sisi’s widespread popularity stems largely from his reputation as the man who vanquished the Brotherhood, leading the military coup that pushed out Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first Islamist and democratically-elected president, last July.
"There will be nothing called the Muslim Brotherhood during my tenure," said the retired field marshal. He said the Islamist movement will not be welcomed back into the political process, saying: “We are unable to live together.”
The Brotherhood grew deeply unpopular during Morsi's year in office. Morsi shut other groups out of the political process, and his opponents feared he might try to turn Egypt into a theocracy. Since Morsi’s ouster, the government has officially blacklisted the Brotherhood as a terrorist group and cracked down hard on Islamists.
The sweeping punishment has kindled an insurgency that has brought numerous bombings into the heart of the capital. But Sisi is unlikely to call for reconciliation with the Brotherhood because doing so could alienate his supporters, analysts say.
In describing the enormous challenges facing the economy, Sisi appeared to foreshadow austerity measures. Homes across Egypt have been plagued by power outages throughout the spring, signaling a worsening energy crisis in the summer, when air conditioners are used to keep scorching temperatures at bay. Throughout Monday night's broadcast, Twitter was awash with reports of blackouts that disrupted the interview for many.
Economists predict that Egypt's economy will only grow by around 2.1 percent this year. The country's foreign reserves are also under pressure because the government has used them to prop up the weak Egyptian pound.
Sisi blamed the Brotherhood for the country’s economic decline, and called on Egyptians to tighten their belts while highlighting the importance of external funding, most importantly from Gulf monarchies such as Saudi Arabia that have strongly backed his candidacy as a bulwark against a possible Brotherhood resurgence.
Drawing on the example of people he said he had met in Upper Egypt, Sisi said, “You’d see them working day and night and barely finding anything to eat, but after 10 years… with a shop and a future." His language has been more severe in leaked recordings of private conversations. In one, he muses over whether Egyptians would be able accept austerity. "If I make you wake at 5 o'clock in the morning every day… Can you stand that from me?” he asks.
But he avoided discussing two of the biggest drains of the economy: fuel and food subsidies. In 2015, energy subsidies will cost the state 12 percent more than the 130 billion Egyptian pounds budgeted unless subsidies are immediately decreased. Without such reforms, the government will have to dip into funds for other services, further starving sclerotic public services.
"People won’t tolerate it,” he said of the removal of subsidies.