Egypt’s former army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi was sworn in Sunday as president for a four-year term, assuming the highest office of a deeply polarized nation roiled by deadly unrest and an economic crisis since its Arab Spring uprising in 2011.
El-Sissi’s inauguration came less than a year after he ousted the country’s first freely elected president, Islamist Mohammed Morsi, following days of mass protests demanding he step down. While praised by many in a wave of nationalist fervor following the July 3 overthrow, el-Sissi’s rise to power coincided with the detention of thousands and the killing of hundreds of Morsi supporters.
Now, the retired field marshal faces the daunting tasks of reviving Egypt’s stagnant economy, fighting Islamic extremists and cementing his rule after years of turmoil in the Arab world’s most populous country.
“The presidency of Egypt is a great honor and a huge responsibility,” el-Sissi told local and foreign dignitaries gathered at an opulent Cairo palace hours after his swearing-in ceremony.
Under his rule, he said, Egypt will work for regional security and stability. He also called on Egyptians to build a more stable future after three turbulent years, asking them to work hard so that their rights and freedoms could grow.
“It is time for us to build a future that is more stable and pen a new reality for the future of this nation,” he said. Hard work, something that he has repeatedly called for in recent weeks, will allow Egyptians to “pay attention to rights and freedoms (to) deepen and develop them,” he said.
“Let us differ for the sake of our nation and not over it; let us do that as part of a unifying national march in which every party listens to the other objectively and without ulterior motives,” he said.
El-Sissi, 59, earlier took the oath of office before the Supreme Constitutional Court at the tribunal’s Nile-side headquarters in a suburb south of Cairo, the same venue where Morsi, now on trial for charges that carry the death penalty, was sworn in two years ago.
The building, designed to look like an ancient Egyptian temple, is a short distance away from a military hospital where longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak, toppled by the 2011 uprising, is being held. Forced out of office after 29 years in power, Mubarak was convicted last month on graft charges and sentenced to three years in prison. He is also being retried over the killing of protesters during the 18-day revolt.
Sunday was declared a national holiday for el-Sissi’s inauguration and police and troops deployed throughout Cairo. The entire Cabinet, as well as el-Sissi’s wife and children, attended the swearing-in ceremony.
Outgoing interim president Adly Mansour, installed by el-Sissi after the overthrow, will return to his post as the chief justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court.
El-Sissi is Egypt’s eighth president since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1953, the year after a military coup. With the exception of Morsi and two civilians who served in an interim capacity, all of Egypt’s presidents have come from the armed forces.
A 21-gun salute greeted el-Sissi as he arrived at the Ittiahdiya presidential palace in Cairo’s upscale district of Heliopolis after being sworn in. He welcomed dozens of local and foreign dignitaries, including the kings of Jordan and Bahrain, the emir of Kuwait and the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, the largest and wealthiest of the seven sheikdoms that make up the United Arab Emirates.
The five Arab nations backed el-Sissi’s ouster of Morsi. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Emirates since have provided billions of dollars to shore up Egypt’s ailing finances.
El-Sissi won a landslide victory in presidential elections held last month, receiving nearly 97 percent of the vote, with a turnout of 47.45 percent. The three-day election was declared free of fraud but was tainted by the extraordinary means used by authorities to get the vote out, including a threat to fine those who stayed home, a one-day voting extension, and allowing free rides on trains and buses to encourage voters to travel to their home districts to cast their ballots.
It was also held against a backdrop of vastly curbed freedoms in the 11 months since Morsi’s ouster and a massive crackdown on supporters of his Muslim Brotherhood, hundreds of whom have been killed in clashes with security forces. Morsi’s supporters boycotted the vote and have also called for massive demonstrations to mark Morsi’s July 3 ouster, though their ranks have thinned considerably.
The pro-military media has meanwhile demonized not only the Brotherhood but also secular icons from the 2011 uprising.
Morsi’s Islamist backers — thousands of whom have been jailed since his ouster — accuse el-Sissi of crushing Egypt’s infant democracy. Many of the secular youths behind the 2011 uprising say he has revived Mubarak’s police state, pointing to a law passed last year that restricts protests as well as the jailing of a number of well-known activists.
In interviews, el-Sissi made it clear that his priorities are security and the economy, maintaining that free speech must take a back seat while he fights Islamic militants and works to revive the ailing economy.
But while many support el-Sissi’s fight against the militancy, his plans for the economy have generated less enthusiasm. He has advocated heavy government involvement in the economy, with state-sponsored mega-projects to create jobs and the government setting prices for some goods. At the same time, he has vowed to be business-friendly and encourage investment.
He has spoken of reshaping the map of Egypt by expanding Nile provinces into the desert to make way for development outside the densely populated river valley. His answer for funding his projects is billions of dollars from oil-rich Gulf nations and Egyptian expatriates.