CAIRO (Reuters) - When general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi swapped his uniform for a suit to become Egyptian president, he mapped out a return to democracy culminating in parliamentary elections. These start on Sunday, but the new chamber is unlikely to challenge what critics describe as his increasingly authoritarian rule.
With most of his opponents in jail and Western powers firmly behind him, Sisi is consolidating his hold on power more than a year into his first term and two years after he toppled Egypt’s first freely-elected president following mass protests.
It’s a familiar script in Egypt, which has been ruled mostly by military strongmen since army officers overthrew King Farouk in 1952, say some observers: ex-generals promise freedom and prosperity but end up governing with an iron fist and concluding they are untouchable.
“Sisi shows signs of seeing himself above politics,” said Nathan Brown, professor at George Washington University in the United States. “My sense is that he sees himself as a chosen leader and not properly subject to any oversight.”
Sisi says he is committed to turning the economy around; those who know the president describe him as a disciplinarian who is at his desk by 5 am, but one who listens to his advisers.
“He revises his decisions based on advice from people who know about the issue,” said Sameh Seif Elyazal, a former intelligence officer who heads the leading loyalist alliance running in the elections and knows Sisi. “Others might say ‘No, I am president and my decision is final’ but he is not like that at all.”
As army chief, Sisi removed Islamist president Mohamed Mursi from power in 2013. Security forces then shot dead hundreds of Mursi supporters and imprisoned thousands of members of his Muslim Brotherhood in the toughest crackdown on dissent in Egypt’s modern history.
To many, Sisi was a savior who could get Egypt back on track after the upheaval triggered by the 2011 uprising that ended 30 years under Hosni Mubarak, a former air force chief.
Less than a year later, Egyptians who opposed the Brotherhood and regarded Sisi as a decisive leader who could bring stability, elected him president. They gave him 97 percent of the vote amid low turnout, a result reminiscent of presidential polls once held by Mubarak and derided by critics.
Images of Sisi in his trademark beret and sunglasses adorned posters, t-shirts, chocolates, even women’s underwear.
That adulation has since worn off. While Sisi still enjoys wide support, there are growing signs of discontent with higher food prices, taxes and dire public healthcare in a country where 44 percent of recent graduates are unemployed.
“In general, with the way things are going in Egypt with the security situation and the economy, there is an increasing feeling here that things are not working out well,” said Michele Dunne, director of Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Program. “It’s not a happy picture and the promises that Sisi made are not coming through.”
Like president Gamal Abdel Nasser who overthrew the monarchy, Sisi has announced megaprojects to great fanfare, including a new capital with an airport larger than London’s Heathrow and a building taller than the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
The Suez Canal was indeed expanded in just one year. But critics say such projects divert attention from politically-sensitive reforms, such as cutting subsidies or slimming the civil service, that are needed to promote long-term economic growth.
Despite a large budget deficit and pressure on the currency, Sisi has gone on a military spending spree, buying French weapons, including combat jets and helicopter carriers. Cairo has also signed a $3.5 billion arms deal with Moscow, to the consternation of the West.
These billions could have been spent on health, education or developing infrastructure in the countryside where barefoot children still play in dirt roads, Sisi’s critics say.
Like past Egyptian presidents, Sisi has presented himself as an indispensable leader in the Arab world, pushing the idea of a united regional force to combat Islamic State militants. Yet hundreds of Egyptian soldiers have died fighting Islamist insurgents in North Sinai since Mursi’s downfall.
On paper, the new parliament to be elected in two rounds beginning on Oct. 18 will be powerful. It could, for instance, block Sisi’s decision to support Saudi Arabia in its war against Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen, reject his choice of prime minister or even impeach the president himself.
But without candidates from the Brotherhood or the youth activists who were at the forefront of the 2011 uprising, parliament is likely to be stacked with members of the political elite who broadly support Sisi.
Speculation is rife that the constitution, passed by a referendum after Mursi’s removal, may be amended.
Khaled Dawoud, a government critic who recently resigned as spokesman of the Destour Party, said Sisi’s supporters may want to change a clause limiting the president to two, four-year terms, rather than curb parliament’s powers.
“Is it about the powers or is it about his terms?” he said. “That’s my main suspicion because I can’t expect the next parliament will cause any problem whatsoever for the president.”
Egyptians may have their reservations but, with local rights groups estimating 40,000 political prisoners are behind bars, taking to the streets again could be risky.
Egypt has avoided the chaos engulfing Libya, Syria and Iraq, meaning the West is more likely to ignore any criticism that the elections are cosmetic. Sisi is also unlikely to be threatened internally as long as he does not antagonise the still powerful generals.
A debate among villagers on the outskirts of the southern city of Minya illustrates how Egyptians appear to accept Sisi’s rule.
Sipping tea one recent warm, still night, local men waited for an election candidate to arrive in the village and talk turned to the turbulent past few years.
“Under Mursi, there was no electricity. Try and find petrol for your car here in Minya. There was no security, you were too scared to walk in the street after dark. Sisi is bringing security back,” said one young man, a recent graduate.
Another man in a long green galabiya interjected, speaking softly, “do you bring back security by putting all your opponents in jail?”
Sitting next to him, a man in a suit said Mubarak had brought some benefits. “Sisi has shown us only the stick so far, but it was needed,” he said.
On one thing the villagers agreed: Sisi wouldn’t be satisfied with just two terms. “This is Egypt,” said the man in the suit, his youthful features breaking out into a grin. “That doesn’t happen here.”
Additional reporting by Lin Noueihed in Minya and Eric Knecht; editing by David Stamp