Former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was sworn in as president of Egypt yesterday following the ousting of Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi last year.
Last month’s election, which officials said Mr Sisi won with 97 per cent of the vote, followed three years of upheaval since a popular uprising ended 30 years of rule by former air force commander Hosni Mubarak.
Security in Cairo was extra tight for the event, with armoured personnel carriers and tanks positioned in strategic locations as Mr Sisi spoke to foreign dignitaries after a 21-gun salute at Cairo’s main presidential palace. He called for hard work and the development of freedom “in a responsible framework away from chaos”.
“The time has come to build a more stable future,” said Mr Sisi, the sixth Egyptian leader with a military background. “Let us work to establish the values of rightness and peace.”
Near Tahrir Square, the symbolic heart of the revolt against Mubarak where protesters now rarely tread, young men sold T-shirts with the image of Mr Sisi in his trademark dark sunglasses.
Many of the country’s political commentators heaped praise on him, turning a blind eye to what human rights groups say are widespread abuses, in the hope that he can deliver stability and rescue the economy.
Many Egyptians share that hope, but they have limited patience, staging street protests that toppled two leaders in the past three years, and the election turnout of just 47 per cent shows Mr Sisi is not as popular as when he toppled Mr Morsi.
“Sisi has to do something in his first 100 days, people will watch closely and there might be another revolution. That’s what people are like in this country,” said 21-year-old theology student Israa Youssef.
Mr Morsi was the country’s first freely elected president, but his year in power was tarnished by accusations that he usurped power, imposed the Brotherhood’s views on Islam and mismanaged the economy, allegations he denied.
After Mr Sisi deposed him and became Egypt’s de facto ruler, security forces mounted one of the toughest crackdowns on the Brotherhood in its 86-year history. Hundreds were killed in street protests and thousands of others jailed.
Secular activists were eventually thrown into jail too, even those who supported Mr Morsi’s fall, because they violated a new law that severely restricts protests. Mr Morsi’s ouster was applauded by Egypt’s Gulf Arab allies, who were alarmed by the rise of the Brotherhood, the international standard-bearer of mainstream Sunni political Islam.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait pumped billions of dollars of aid into Egypt after Mr Sisi appeared on television and announced that the Brotherhood was finished.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia urged Egyptians this week to back Mr Sisi and said they should disown “the strange chaos” of the Arab uprisings. Kuwait’s Emir, the King of Bahrain, the Crown Princes of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi are attending Mr Sisi’s inauguration, according to a list provided by the Egyptian presidency.
Diplomatic manoeuvrings pale as a problem for Mr Sisi compared with an urgent need to fix state finances and tackle an Islamist insurgency to lure back tourists and investors.
Officials forecast economic growth at just 3.2 per cent in the fiscal year that begins on 1 July, well below levels needed to create enough jobs for a rapidly growing population and ease widespread poverty. Child nursery employee Kamal Mahmoud, 25, said he was optimistic but would give Mr Sisi only two years to bring change.
If he doesn’t succeed “he has no right to hold that position and he should join the others sitting in prison”, he said.