CAIRO—Abdel Fattah al-Sisi officially stepped into the Egyptian presidency on Sunday, replacing interim president Adly Mansour. The inauguration ceremony, held at the high constitutional court in Cairo, drew delegations from the United States, China, Russia, the Middle East and Africa (excluding Israel, Qatar, Turkey, and Tunisia).
On Sunday morning, the streets of Cairo buzzed with activity, ramping up for large nighttime celebrations. A fleet of sailboats decorated the Nile, flying Egyptian flags as they made their way from downtown toward the constitutional court where al-Sisi took his oath of office. While some Cairenes went to work as usual, others took advantage of the government-declared holiday.
In the afternoon, I met two young women named Wafa and Hadeel walking downtown toward Tahrir Square with visible excitement, Egyptian flag in hand. When I asked to take their picture, they held up the two-finger “victory” sign popular with al-Sisi supporters. But at a coffee shop nearby, a young employee named Ahmed told me he didn’t plan to attend any of the rallies scheduled for inauguration night. “This is nothing new,” he said, countering the refrain of many Egyptians that al-Sisi will usher in a new era for Egypt—an end to the instability and economic dysfunction that plague the nation.
Since last week’s announcement of al-Sisi’s landslide victory, celebratory momentum generated by local media and the loud crack of fireworks filling the streets have drowned out concerns about the election’s legitimacy.
On Sunday morning, one local channel ran the subtitle “Egypt writes history” throughout its live coverage of the inauguration. The commentators focused on al-Sisi’s quiet demeanor and the mutually deferential treatment between al-Sisi and Mansour as the two carried out Egypt’s first transfer-of-power ceremony. But the serene baton-passing caught on camera belies the tumult of Egypt’s recent past as well as the controversy and criticism that accompany al-Sisi’s ascent to Egypt’s highest office.
During the past week, Egyptian media has widely glossed over objections to the official voter turnout rate of 47.3 percent—a strangely high number given that the government took emergency measures to remedy lackluster attendance at polls—and reports from international observers of unseemly polling procedures.
On Sunday evening, al-Sisi gave his first speech as president, in front of the al-Quba presidential palace. He presented his priorities, which include strengthening the economy, improving life for the poor within four years, taking on large-scale development projects throughout the country, addressing flagging education and health systems, and advocating for an independent Palestinian state.
He committed to fight terrorism, suggesting his administration will not seek to reconcile with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government has deemed a terrorist organization. He went on to warn that groups that resort to using violence will be met with restraint in the form of violence—a deterrent for citizens who have grown accustomed to expressing political discontent with street protests.
Behind al-Sisi’s cautionary words directed at potential detractors stands a line-up of freshly minted laws created in the past several weeks under Mansour. A new regulation that bans preaching without an official permit will allow the government to monitor messages emanating from Egypt’s mosques. Regulations regarding the treatment of the Egyptian flag give protestors and revelers alike reason to watch their behavior in front of police. An initiative to increase monitoring of social media sites will check the primary means Egyptian activists have used to initiate protests and revolutions. And the first law clearly defining punishments for sexual harassment makes provision for prosecuting offenders.
Since the January 2011 revolution that ousted longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians have lived in a state of polarized reaction to the simultaneous disruption and hopefulness built into the country’s political uncertainty. For many, Tahrir Square symbolized the heart of the revolution, the epicenter of popular will, where the people discovered their ability to topple a seemingly invincible regime. For others, the iconic gathering place represents the beginning of an unstable chapter they are eager to close.
After the inauguration, al-Sisi supporters rallied in Tahrir to mark the turning of a page for their country. Amid the raucous celebration, five reported sexual assaults led to the arrest of seven suspects, and fights broke out in the crowds. Early Monday morning, police emptied the square and closed it off with barbed wire and large metal doors painted with the colors of the Egyptian flag.