Retired Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s long-awaited decision to run for president sparked an unusual response Thursday in a country that for the last three years has been consumed by politics, elections and protests: calm.
In a nation where major political announcements become the subject of ubiquitous talk around the country, Thursday felt unusually ordinary. Co-workers did not spend the day discussing el-Sissi’s decision. There was little chatter about it among subway passengers. Shop owners said they did not spend the day refereeing debates between customers about the future president. And a street that in recent years has been defined by protests and demonstrations of support was largely silent.
Many Egyptians suggested that the near certainty of el-Sissi’s election to become the country’s fourth president in three years was in part to blame for decidedly mixed feelings about his candidacy. On one hand, many called el-Sissi, who’s been the nation’s de facto leader for the past eight months, Egypt’s last hope for stability and security. On the other, they said they were fearful of what giving the presidency to an already powerful man could portend.
Some conceded that an el-Sissi presidency was more likely to return Egypt to the autocratic practices of the past than it was to usher in the kind of democratic reforms Egyptians once called for in Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square. Many said they were willing to pay that price for stability after three years of unprecedented turmoil, a polarized public and an economy in freefall. But the reaction nationwide suggested such a swap also muted enthusiasm for el-Sissi’s presidency.
Hours after el-Sissi gave an impassioned nationwide address, the Cabinet reshuffle began as the government stacked key positions with el-Sissi allies and longtime pols and military officers who rose to prominence during the three-decade rule of former President Hosni Mubarak. El-Sissi’s deputy, Gen. Sedki Sobhi, took el-Sissi’s place as defense minister. The new chief of staff, Mahmoud Hegazy, has a family connection to el-Sissi; Hegazy’s daughter is married to one of el-Sissi’s sons.
El-Sissi will be the first presidential candidate in the post-2011 uprising period to confront a muted opposition. With the leaders of the anti-Mubarak movement in prison and the Muslim Brotherhood broken by a nationwide crackdown that has killed hundreds, the sectors that once led Egypt’s protest movements have been neutralized.
And that is precisely what has many here quietly nervous about el-Sissi’s presidency.
“Everyone wants el-Sissi, but they are afraid that if he turned out badly, they won’t be able to remove him,” explained Amr Ashraf, 24, a shoe salesman in the impoverished Cairo neighborhood of Dar Salaam.
His co-worker, who identified himself only as Haitham, 28 chimed in: “I fear he will turn into another Mubarak.” Haitham predicted, however, that his reception is likely to be more accepting than that of Mohammed Morsi, the democratically elected leader whose ouster el-Sissi engineered. “People will be more patient with el-Sissi than Morsi. They trust him more.”
Public participation in national elections no longer feels as necessary as it once did. The 2012 elections, which Morsi won, were largely seen as both fair and suspenseful. No one knew who would end up winning, and Morsi won by a 52-48 margin, a remarkably close victory after three decades of huge Mubarak margins.
This year, however, everyone feels they know the ending _ el-Sissi wins. That outcome won’t change, whether the balloting is fair or there are other candidates.
Ahmed Mohammed, 34, sell peanuts and sunflower seeds near the shoe shop and called himself a proud el-Sissi supporter. As customers came in, reaching their hands over the pyramid-shape piles of seeds, some told him “congratulations on el-Sissi.”
But Mohammed foresaw problems ahead. Liberals and Islamists will seek a place in the presumed el-Sissi government, creating political struggles. The political and economic collapse of the last three years will take even longer to undo.
“Stability will come fast, but the kind of life we had under Mubarak, that will take five years,” Mohammed said. “There is no need for protests or demonstrations. We are all spending our time looking for food and work.”
Perhaps in reaction to the quiet streets, Tamarod, a grassroots movement that helped bring down Morsi, urged Morsi supporters to take to the streets Friday and show their support for el-Sissi. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood called for opponents to protest.
El-Sissi supporters said the lack of public celebration at his announcement reflected an understanding that el-Sissi doesn’t need a public show of support.
“No one asked us to go to the street. If el-Sissi asks us, we will go,” said Mohamed Abdel Kadr, 27, a shop worker in Dar Salaam. “I am not worried. El-Sissi will fix the country.”
Special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed to this report.