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Will New President El-Sissi Turn Back Clock on Egypt's Democracy?

Critics say el-Sissi is living in the past and will erase Egypt’s fragile democratic gains.

CAIRO - Dictator to some and savior to others, Egypt's new president Abdel Fatah el-Sissi faces the daunting task of steering a tumultuous Egypt that has seen protests topple two presidents in three years.

His presidency will be critical to say the least. The former general won the election in a landslide Thursday on the promise that he would control the turmoil that has plagued Egypt since the Arab Spring uprising.

But critics say el-Sissi – who enjoys the backing of the armed forces, the Interior Ministry and businessmen who were influential under strongman Hosni Mubarak – is living in the past and will erase Egypt’s fragile democratic gains.

“The military is in the sixties, they are not in this century,” said Rana Allam, editor-in-chief of the English-language Daily News Egypt online newspaper.

“Sissi is a man for their time, not our time,” she said, explaining that she and other liberals are expecting the worst. “Authoritarian rule, a dictatorship, a large-scale crackdown on freedoms,” she predicts.

Then-presidential candidate and former army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sissi talks during a television interview broadcast on CBC and ONTV, in Cairo. El-Sissi won the presidential election in a landslide.AL YOUM AL SAABI / Reuters, file

El-Sissi, 60, grew up under President Gamal Abdel Nasar, who ushered in an era of intense nationalism and regional supremacy – and repressed opposition. El-Sissi’s entire career has been in the military: After graduating from the military academy he served as an infantry corps officer and military attaché and then headed Military Intelligence before becoming defense minister for the president he would soon oust, Mohammed Morsi.

According to Allam, Egypt under el-Sissi’s influence has already seen a massive rise in killing and torture, beyond anything seen in Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

Critics also doubt el-Sissi can solve Egypt’s economic woes because he will appoint people he trusts from the military and rely on Mubarak-era big businessmen. “The best case scenario would be that the poor would rise up,” said Allam, who thinks he will be overthrown in his first term.

“Sissi is a man for their time, not our time.”

Less than half the electorate (46 percent of Egypt’s 54 million voters) came out to vote even though the election was extended by a day, raising further questions about his legitimacy. El-Sissi had called for a turnout of 80 percent of the electorate.

Many Egyptians said voters had stayed at home due to political apathy, opposition to another military man becoming president, discontent at suppression of freedoms among liberal youth, and calls for a boycott by Islamists.

Still, supporters say el-Sissi has swept in to rescue Egypt.

He won 93.3 percent of the vote while his only real opponent, socialist Hamdeen Sabahi, won 3 percent, judicial sources said.

Egypt's former President Morsi and then-Defense Minister el-Sissi attending a news conference in Cairo on May 22, 2013. Morsi appointed el-Sissi to the office in 2012 after he served as chief of Military Intelligence.Reuters, file

“He is a fair man who treats conscript and officer equally,” said one retired general who knew el-Sissi during his tenure in Military Intelligence. “He knows the problems the country is facing and will bring…highly talented people who understand Egypt’s economic problems,” he said, refusing to be named.

The age of ‘president for life’ that Mubarak enjoyed has passed, said another retired high-level general from Military Intelligence who worked with el-Sissi. But society needs a strong leader to manage the democracy ushered in by the January 25, 2011 revolution, he added.

“He will choose a civilian cabinet, and … will pick military leadership for sensitive areas like military production, and border zone governorships,” the general said, referring to the precarious level of security throughout the region.

Islamist militants have stepped up attacks since Morsi's ouster, killing hundreds of police and soldiers in violence that has hammered the vital tourism industry.

“Sissi was the hero of the January revolution and saved lives because of his leadership at that time. The porous border situation with Libya, Sudan and Israel requires a military leader, and Sissi’s good status in the regions will lead the Gulf to help him out,” the general said.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait see Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood as an existential threat and have pumped billions of dollars into Egypt to keep the economy afloat.

But critics charge that his reliance on those old allies is proof that he is out of touch.

“Sissi was the hero of the January revolution and saved lives because of his leadership at that time.”

“[It] shows a fundamental lack of understanding about how to address the problems Egypt is facing,” said Maha Yehya, analyst from Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“His key partners will be the old business establishment who are revving for a comeback,” she said.

Many observers also argue that el-Sissi has no concrete plan, having outlined only vague economic policies to fix corruption, unemployment and a growing budget deficit.

“He is a soldier and will continue to be a conservative military person, giving military orders to the people,” said Allam, the Daily News Egypt editor who expressed fears over an el-Sissi crackdown.

“He is not a diplomat, not a politician and definitely not an economist.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

A supporter of Egypt's former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi holds his portrait during a gathering in the capital Cairo on May 10, 2014. The retired field marshal, who toppled elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July, won the election in a landslide.MOHAMED EL-SHAHED / AFP - Getty Images, file