Former army chief Sisi leads as Egyptians vote for president

Abdel Fattah al-SIsi is expected to win the presidency by a landslide. His candidacy has polarized Egypt, with supporters hailing him as a savior and critics calling him a killer.

Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
A supporter of Egypt's former Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi holds a campaign flag of him during a rally in Cairo, May 23, 2014. Egyptians vote today in an election expected to make former army chief Sisi president, marking a revival of strongman rule three years after the downfall of Hosni Mubarak.

Three and a half years after Egyptians ousted their last military president, they go to the polls today to elect a new one. Although former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is not the only candidate, he will likely win by a landslide.

No Egyptian presidential candidate has ever been so hyped. “Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s name lit up the darkness. He was called upon at a supreme moment in history; a kind of mysterious rendezvous with destiny," read one recent tribute in Egypt's leading daily newspaper, Al Ahram.

To his supporters, Sisi is a national savior after leading the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi last year. But critics say he is domineering, ill-prepared, and a killer. 

The July coup has been followed by an unprecedented crackdown against both Islamist and secular dissenting voices - more than 16,000 people have been arrested, according to officials, and at least 2,000 killed by security forces. Other sources say the number arrested may be as high as 40,000.

In office, Sisi will face an array of problems. Decades of economic and institutional decline under former President Hosni Mubarak, followed by three years of political turmoil, have battered the economy and rule of law, and fostered a militant insurgency that has killed hundreds.

Campaigning out of sight

The youngest member of the ruling military council that took power briefly after Egypt’s 2011 revolution, before Mr. Morsi's election, Sisi had a low public profile until Morsi appointed him defense minister in August 2012.

Born in November 1954, he grew up in the heart of old, Islamic Cairo. Those who knew the young Sisi recall a quiet child, preoccupied with self-discipline. They say he devised his own fitness routines, using rocks and poles as barbells. 

His non-traditional campaign has featured no public appearances, a decision intended to protect the aura of sanctity his publicity machine has created, and to minimize the risk of assassination by Morsi’s aggrieved supporters. 

A well-oiled campaign machine has compensated for the lack of public interaction - ahead of today’s vote, Sisi's face fills newspapers, and is emblazoned on posters and drapes across the country.

But visibility does not necessarily equal popularity. According to one recent poll, Sisi only has the backing of 54 percent of Egyptians. This proportion of the electorate is most likely to mobilize, however, and experts predict Sisi will win at least 70 percent of the vote. The Brotherhood, once one of Egypt's largest voting blocs, will not be turning out in force. The crackdown has forced many into prison, or underground. Turnout is not expected to be high.

Sisi’s supporters say he is a decisive leader who can bring Egypt’s state institutions to heel. In interviews, he presents himself as a patriot, and has spoken of dreams in which he learned that he was destined to lead Egypt to greatness.

Economic program

The man from Gamaleya is known for his personal austeriy, despite his alleged personal wealth of around 30 million Egyptian pounds ($4 million). In campaign appearances, he has emphasized that Egyptians are in for two years of frugality and hard work. Strikes and street protests will not be tolerated, he says.

"I'm not leaving a chance for people to act on their own," he said in a televised interview last month. "My program will be mandatory."

Egypt’s economy has been badly scarred by three years of political unrest -- it is now propped up by cash injections from sympathetic Gulf monarchies. 

The Sisi campaign - as well as that of his challenger, Hamdeen Sabbahi - has largely avoided policy specifics, promising only to rescue the country’s economy through a marriage of state intervention and the hard work of citizens.

“There's no real comprehensive program or really much of a sign of an ideology beyond the fact that Sisi is going to work hard, Egyptians should work hard, and maybe there's been a little bit too much politics,” says Nathan Brown, a professor at George Washington University.

Mr. Brown says that the lack of specifics has worked in Sisi’s favor. “By not making any commitments, he does not really alienate any large constituency,” he says.

Fighting terrorism

Apart from one: Brotherhood members and sympathizers. Sisi was one of the earliest public figures to brand Morsi’s supporters as terrorists. In July last year, he called on Egyptians to turn out in mass rallies showing their support for his fight against "violence and potential terrorism." Two weeks later, security forces forcibly dispersed a camp of Morsi supporters in the capital, killing hundreds.

Brotherhood supporters hold Sisi directly responsible for the massacre, and the thousands of arrests that have followed. In Cairo, some of his campaign posters are spattered with fake blood.

Critics describe Sisi as a strongman with little tolerance for criticism. In a televised interview, broadcast in early May, his typical quietly paternal manner changed in an instant when the presenters referred to the army as "askar," which has sometimes been used to describe foreign occupiers.

"I won't allow you to use that word again," he said.

Power struggle

After leading last year's coup, and backing the crackdown that followed, Sisi has earned a reputation as a man who takes national security seriously. Egypt's electorate agrees, but the restoration of security will mean different things to different people.

For most Sisi voters, this will involve a further eradication of the Muslim Brotherhood. Islamists, however, say they just want to be able to walk in the streets without fearing the security services or neighbourhood informers. 

Egypt's repressive security apparatus – a wellspring of grievances for protesters in January 2011 – has been rehabilitated since Morsi's overthrow, and now operates largely unchecked. Popular anger against Islamists that accompanied Morsi’s overthrow has served as a tacit endorsement of the tactics, even as the dragnet also stifles secular voices.

According to Brown, Sisi's early moves will indicate whether Sisi plans to bring Egypt's interior ministry to heel.

"If he brings in his own person, that might be a sign he intends to rein in - or at least establish control over - an apparatus that is behaving a bit like a rogue elephant," he says. Government insiders say the crackdown has been championed by the interior ministry, while members of the military have at times encouraged a less heavy-handed approach.

Sisi has strong incentives to attempt some sort of reshuffle, not least to distance himself from the excessive brutality that has characterized the post-Morsi months. The interior ministry will be a difficult beast to tame. Many Egyptians consider him well up to the task.

"He is the only one to lead at the moment," says one young woman, Israa Mohamed, who intends to vote for the strongman. "If he falls down, Egypt will fall down with him."

Additional reporting by Deyaa Adel

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