Abdel-Fattah al-Seesi entered Egypt’s presidential race promising to steer his divided country toward the stability that has eluded it since Hosni Mubarak was toppled more than three years ago.
Al-Seesi stepped down as defense minister and general commander of the armed forces to contest a vote he is likely to win. A little-known military officer when appointed defense minister in 2012, he is lionized by supporters who consider him a national savior for leading the July ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi. Critics accuse him of trampling democracy by toppling Mursi and presiding over a bloody crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood backers.
If al-Seesi is elected as expected, his presidency would restore Egypt’s decades-old tradition of having a man hailing from the military in the top job. It would also test al-Seesi’s ability to translate his popularity into policies that would fix an economy crippled by violence and turmoil.
“I will continue to fight every day for an Egypt that is free of fear and terror,” he said in a televised address late yesterday. “If I earn the honor to lead, I promise you that together we, people and leadership, can realize stability and safety for Egypt.”
Mursi’s allies said al-Seesi’s long-anticipated announcement confirms that Egypt is the victim of a “terrorist coup” that seeks to install “a republic of fear and oppression.”
“The false mask has fallen off,” the main Islamist alliance backing Mursi, dominated by his Muslim Brotherhood group, said in an e-mailed statement that called for anti-government rallies tomorrow.
Armed forces chief of staff Sedki Sobhi was sworn in today to replace al-Seesi as defense minister.
Egypt’s benchmark EGX 30 Index tumbled the most in seven months after rising as much as 1.4 percent at the start of trading. The gauge plunged 2.7 percent at the close in Cairo as investors sought to cash in on months of speculation that an al-Seesi presidency will calm Egypt’s tumult. Today’s losses pare the measure’s gains since Mursi’s overthrow to 66 percent.
“There are definitely some doubts over the extent of democratization that would be expected out of his presidency,” said Ziad Akl, senior researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, before the announcement. “There is a segment of society that is not allowed to exist, namely, the Islamists.”
“On the other hand, I believe he will have a plan of reform,” including structural changes and infrastructure projects, Akl said.
The 59-year-old al-Seesi had risen through the military ranks before Mursi made him defense minister. The U.S.-trained officer’s resume includes a stint as military attache in Saudi Arabia, which diplomatically and financially supported the military-backed government that replaced Mursi’s.
Al-Seesi’s use of fatherly, flowery language -- he’s called the Egyptian people “the light of our eyes” -- has endeared him to supporters, who’ve hung up billboards and posters bearing his image. Some liken him to charismatic former President Gamal Abdel Nasser and even kiss photographs of him in military regalia.
“Al-Seesi has rescued the country from a disastrous situation,” 53-year-old Tarek Anwar said in downtown Cairo as he stood near one of the many placards urging al-Seesi to run. “We want social justice. We want the people who are crushed by poverty to be able to live. We want stability.”
Detractors call him a “traitor” and “murderer” in graffiti scribbled on walls. Security forces have killed hundreds of Mursi’s supporters since his removal after mass demonstrations against his one-year rule. Mursi and dozens of other Islamist leaders are imprisoned and on trial.
The government, which blames the Brotherhood for much of the violence, has also embarked on a campaign to root out militants based in the Sinai Peninsula.
The adulation surrounding al-Seesi, fanned by television stations and newspapers, risks making criticism impossible, said political activist Wael Khalil. “Not only is he the military candidate but he’s also touted as a savior. So where does opposing him leave you?”
Although expectations that al-Seesi will restore stability have propelled gains on the stock market, the economy remains stuck in its worst slowdown in two decades.
“Our country is facing massive challenges, and our economy is weak,” al-Seesi said yesterday, citing youth unemployment as among the key problems. “Egyptians deserve a better life than this.”
While the popular and military backing he enjoys may empower al-Seesi to consider painful economic reforms, his rise risks further escalating a militant insurgency that has spread from the deserts of Sinai to the streets of Cairo.
“What al-Seesi will usher in in Egypt is a period of political predictability,” Hani Sabra, Middle East director at the Eurasia Group, said by phone. “There is a distinction between stability and predictability. The economy faces huge roadblocks and security is going to remain precarious. There are no quick fixes.”