CAIRO – Egypt’s president-elect, the former army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, told Egyptians it is now “time to work” to rebuild the country after he was officially declared the landslide winner of last week’s election.
Thousands celebrated in public squares around the country with cheers, fireworks and pro-military songs after the Election Commission officially announced el-Sissi’s victory with nearly 97 percent of the vote in an election that it said saw a turnout of 47.45 percent.
El-Sissi is to be sworn in Sunday to replace Egypt’s first democratically elected president, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi, whom the then-army chief ousted last summer. Since then, el-Sissi has ridden to power on the support of Egyptians craving stability after three years of turmoil, bolstered by a nationalist mania stoked by pro-military TV and newspapers. His supporters and the media have cheered the fierce crackdown on Morsi’s supporters that has killed hundreds and arrested thousands the past 11 months.
But a return of a career military man to the presidency has also raised fears among many Egyptians that el-Sissi will impose a new autocratic order along the lines of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president for 29 years until he was ousted in a popular uprising in 2011. Already, there have been arrests of secular critics of the military-backed government, and law issued after Morsi’s ouster virtually bans protests, allowing only those with police permit.
The first world leader to congratulate el-Sissi was his close ally, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who was also opposed to the toppling of Mubarak. The monarch declared that the turmoil sparked by the Arab Spring should now come to a close.
“This is a historic day,” the king said in a letter on the Saudi state news agency. “The brotherly Egyptian people have suffered in the past period of chaos. Some of those short sighted called it the creative chaos.” He called for donors conference to help Egypt “get out of the tunnel,” referring to its wrecked economy.
El-Sissi campaigned on promises to bring back stability and achieve “great leaps” in repairing the economy. But he also said demands for freedoms should be reined in because they fuel turmoil and he showed little tolerance for dissent.
Speaking in a televised address after the results were announced, he said, “It is now time to work. Work that will carry Egypt to a bright tomorrow and better future and restore stability.”
“The future Is a blank page and it is in our hands to fill it as we wish,” he said, wearing a dark suit and looking tanned. “Cooperation in work and construction will lead to prosperity.”
Some of el-Sissi’s sharpest critics have been activists who led the anti-Mubarak uprising, known as the Jan. 25 Revolution. In a clear nod to them, he repeated the revolution’s main slogan in the short address, promising “bread, freedom, dignity and social justice.”
The Election Commission said el-Sissi garnered 23.78 million votes – or 96.9 percent of the total. His sole rival, leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, received 318,000 – fewer than the 1.4 million invalid ballots cast in the polling.
El-Sissi’s victory was never in doubt, but the career infantry officer had pushed for a massive turnout as well to bestow legitimacy on his ouster of Morsi and the ensuing crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist supporters.
But that goal was dented by the extraordinary means used by the military-backed government to hike voters’ numbers. After signs that the turnout on the first of two scheduled days of voting on Monday was a lowly 15 percent, the government declared the next day a national holiday to free people to go to polls. The election commission threatened to slap fines of $70 – a hefty sum for most Egyptians – on those who did not vote.
When Tuesday polling still seemed low, the commission abruptly extended the election to a third day. The state made bus and train travel free to allow migrants to return to home districts to vote. Throughout the day, TV networks berated Egyptians as “ungrateful” and “traitors” for not voting.
Turnout on the third day was 10 percent, said Anwar el-Assi, the commission’s president. He said the third day was added because a heat wave the first two days kept many voters from the polls.
El-Sissi has said it will take 25 years to bring a real democracy to Egypt and has spoken out against too many freedoms that cause turmoil, amid an already shrinking space for political activity. That has raised many Egyptians’ fears that his presidency will bring an increased clampdown on dissent and a return of police power.
In the latest sign, Egypt’s most popular satirist Bassem Youssef announced Monday the cancellation of hiss landmark weekly TV show, Egypt’s answer to Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” which lambasted presidents and politicians. He blamed pressure on the station airing it and a climate in the country that no longer accepts satire.
In more alarming step, the Interior Ministry, in charge of police, announced plans to set a new surveillance system over the Internet to monitor social networking sites for a wide range of forms of dissent, as well as for extremist activity. On Monday, Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim announced the plans, insisting they did not aim to infringe on freedom of expression.
But an Interior Ministry document on the plans published by the pro-military newspaper Al-Watan listed a wide variety of perceived threats on social media, which the document said is used to express “contempt for religion,” `’spread rumors and tarnish facts with bad intentions,” `’humiliate through mockery”, “ and encourage “extremism, violence, rebellion, rallying for demonstrations, sit-ins and illegal strikes.”
The document called these activities “grave and dangerous security challenges,” and said the ministry had asked companies to present bids to set up the monitoring system.
Social media were one of the main vehicles for engineering the 2011 uprising that led to Mubarak’s fall and the collapse of its police apparatus.
Hazem Abdel-Azem, a former IT official and now a member of el-Sissi’s presidential campaign, told the private CBC TV network that previously the ministry monitored the Internet “manually” and that now it is looking for “a new system.”
The announcement raised a storm of outrage on Egyptian social media sites. Some activists, however, said the plans may aim more to intimidate, since monitoring software is widely available on line.
“I think the report was only meant to create panic among users of social media,” said Hossam el-Hamalawy, an activist in the Revolutionary Socialists, in a comment on his Facebook page.