CAIRO (Reuters) - Former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi won 96.91 percent in Egypt’s presidential vote last week, the election commission said on Tuesday, confirming interim results that had given him a landslide victory.
But turnout was only about 47 percent of the country’s 54 million voters, it said. That was less than the 40 million votes, or 80 percent of the electorate, Sisi had called for.
Sisi gained wide support from Egyptians after toppling President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood last year, prompted by mass protests against his rule.
He now faces staggering challenges in a country where street demonstrations have helped to topple two leaders in three years.
The lower-than-expected turnout raises doubts about Sisi’s ability to maintain popularity while attempting to fix a battered economy, ease poverty and prevent further political crises from paralysing Egypt.
In his first speech since the election, Sisi promised Egyptians a brighter future. But he did not spell out how he would deliver that to the nation of 85 million. So far, Sisi has insisted that hard work would cure Egypt’s ills.
“I look forward to your continued efforts and determination in the coming building phase. You did what you had to do and now it is time to work,” he said on television shortly after the official election result was announced.
The general, who toppled Egypt’s first freely elected president, also described the future as a blank page that must be filled with bread, freedom, human dignity and social justice.
Those same slogans were uttered in the 2011 popular uprising that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak and raised hopes of a democracy free of influence from the military.
Egypt’s political transition has stumbled since then.
Mursi’s year in office was tarnished by allegations that he usurped power, imposed the Brotherhood’s views on society and mismanaged the economy.
While Sisi was idolised by many Egyptians, his support base began to crack after a law severely restricting protests was passed and secular activists, including ones that backed the army takeover, were rounded up.
Sisi’s supporters seemed content to celebrate the moment, gathering by the thousands in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the symbolic heart of the anti-Mubarak revolts, and elsewhere.
Fireworks could be heard downtown and in other parts of the capital, which has witnessed frequent street violence since security forces began a relentless crackdown against the Brotherhood after Mursi’s fall.
“Sisi saved us from the nightmare we were living in. Egypt was falling and he has raised us up,” said Nadia Ibrahim, 50, who works in a computer shop.
Hundreds of Mursi supporters have been killed and thousands arrested. The movement’s top leader has been sentenced to death and other prominent figures could face a similar fate.
Authorities declared the Brotherhood a terrorist group and the movement, which won nearly every election since Mubarak’s fall, was demonized by state and private media.
Although Egyptians had high hopes of democracy when Mubarak was toppled after 30 years in power, what they seem to crave now more than anything is calm, at any cost.
“For now, I think it is OK to compromise on freedoms for the sake of stability and security. What good will freedom without security bring us?” said shopkeeper Refat Ahmed, 30.
Critics view Sisi as another strongman who will rule with an iron fist, protect the interests of the military and crush dissent the same way his predecessors did. Sisi has promised to bring democracy to Egypt.
Human rights groups say abuses have spread since Mursi’s downfall, with opponents of the government that Sisi installed thrown in jail and tortured. Authorities deny that abuses occur.
Sisi’s first priority will most likely be the economy, ravaged by the deterrent effect on tourists and investors alike of more than three years of upheaval in one of the Arab world’s main powers.
A widening budget deficit is burdened by fuel subsidies that could cost nearly $19 billion in the next fiscal year, and high unemployment and rampant corruption are also on the agenda.
Egypt’s economy has been kept afloat by billions of dollars in aid from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, who backed the ouster of the Brotherhood, a movement seen by the oil-rich Gulf states as an existential threat.
Shortly after the election result was announced, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah announced a donor conference for a country that the world’s top oil exporter sees as a frontline ally in its region-wide struggle against both Iran and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
Saudi Arabia has been a main supporter of Sisi and the military government since the army overthrew Mursi.
Abdullah said any country that did not contribute to Egypt’s future despite being able to do so would “have no future place among us”.
Sisi’s handling of energy subsidies could be the first clue as to whether he is prepared to enact economic reforms. Investors want Sisi to end energy subsidies, impose a clear tax regime and give guidance on the direction of the exchange rate.
But raising energy prices could trigger protests.
For now, those who see Sisi as the country’s saviour do not seem too worried about the road ahead.
As the election commission news conference ended, Egyptian journalists and employees of the state information service chanted “Sisi”, took over the podium and danced to pro-army songs.
Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Tom Heneghan