This was the day eagerly awaited by tens of millions of Egyptians. Last Sunday, former military chief Abdel-Fatah El-Sissi was sworn-in as president of the Arab Republic of Egypt after winning a landslide election victory. The architectural splendor of the imposing Supreme Constitutional Court in the Cairo district of Maadi was bathed in sunlight as politicians, dignitaries and judges entered to take their seats, shimmering like the nation’s lifeblood, the River Nile, flowing along regardless.
The ceremony was brief but packed with simmering emotion. The highly respected outgoing President Adly Mansour had returned home to the same court from which he was plucked to lead a country in turmoil through the interim period until elections could be held. He was relaxed, perhaps even relieved to hand over his task, which, as he’s admitted, wasn’t one he relished but was duty-bound to accept.
The man of the moment was solemn; but beneath the facade he was fighting a flood of emotions that were no doubt swirling around his mind. For the first time on camera, his eyes were rapidly blinking, that’s usually a sign of stress. Thankfully for him, the tension was broken by words misspoken by a judge, causing the gathering to break out in laughter.
As this historic day wore on, celebratory events were held in the palaces of Al-Ittihadiya and Al-Quba, attended by royals, heads of state and diplomatic delegations from many regional and African countries with the notable exception of Turkey, Tunisia, Qatar and Israel. Russia was represented by the head of the Duma who handed the president a large envelope—a message from President Putin perhaps? An official from the State Department was there on behalf of the US while the UK sent its deputy ambassador; both countries have stated their willingness to work with the new Egyptian leader with certain caveats related to increased political space, free speech and human rights issues.
I was mesmerized as El-Sissi greeted his honored guests—among them the monarchs of Jordan and Bahrain, the emir of Kuwait, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi’s crown prince—at the entrance to Al-Ittihadiya because this was far from the kind of polite formality one might expect. The warmth with which the great and the powerful offered their congratulations, with prolonged handshakes, kisses and lengthy, often animated, conversations, was a public display of their seal of approval.
However, as Egypt’s new president knows only too well, the demands upon him will weigh heavily. He has emerged as the people’s symbol of hope, their ticket to a better tomorrow. They’re weary of violent protests; they’re excited about a new beginning in a climate of security, stability and economic progress. President El-Sissi has, arguably, the most unenviable job on earth. He’s a man who’s been placed on a pedestal by adoring fans and if he falters or crushes their high—some might say unrealistic—expectations, his admirers will quickly become his detractors.
Over this past year, as El-Sissi’s popularity grew and calls for him to run for president grew louder, he’s been constantly compared to another army man, beloved by Egyptians and Arabs everywhere until now—President Jamal Abdel-Nasser. This comparison is more emotive than grounded in reality. Just about the only characteristics the two leaders have in common are their natural charisma and their ability to connect with ordinary people. How many leaders can say, with hand on heart, that they are loved? Respected, yes, admired yes, feared yes . . . but loved!!
Nasser was so loved that his funeral drew five million mourners whose grief led a few to take their own lives on hearing of his passing. El-Sissi also inspires love among some sections of the Egyptian population but he’s yet to win the confidence of others. He knows that he cannot do it alone. He has asked the people to roll up their sleeves and work with him. When Nasser, one of the Free Army Officers who bid the king farewell, took office, he was much younger than El-Sissi, fueled by ideals and far more inexperienced.
According to reports, President El-Sissi has been doing his homework for months and plans to be guided by a team of Western economic advisers proposed by the Emirates. Whomever he chooses to fill the prime ministerial chair will likely form a government of technocrats. He has pleaded for the people’s patience and he is counting heavily on the continued goodwill of friendly neighbors, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait, which have offered unstinting advice and financial assistance.
Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah, telephoned President El-Sissi on Friday to pledge his country’s support for the Egyptian economy, saying, “This is the Kingdom’s duty based on our religion, ethics and the joint destiny of the two countries.” Last week, King Abdullah asked various countries to attend a “Friends of Egypt” donor conference to help this populous country weather the current crisis. The UAE has promised to provide cash donations and loans and is currently funding a number of development projects, including 25 state-of-the-art wheat silos.
Nobody can predict with any certainty what the future holds, but this is a juncture that calls for optimism and a can-do spirit. Let the media doom and gloom merchants tweet on if that makes them happy; let the leaderships of those countries, who’ve gone out of their way to undermine Egypt’s trajectory, mutter and plot. Patriotic Egyptians and true friends of Egypt are determined to prove the naysayers wrong. And I strongly believe they will.
Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at email@example.com.