Egypt's Sisi lowers expectations for change

CAIRO Thu May 8, 2014 8:39pm IST

An Egyptian man on horse cart rides past a huge banner for Egypt's former army chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in downtown Cairo, May 6, 2014. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

An Egyptian man on horse cart rides past a huge banner for Egypt's former army chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in downtown Cairo, May 6, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

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CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptians should not expect instant democracy or rapid economic reforms, but should pull together for shared sacrifice. That is the sober message being delivered by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the general who toppled Egypt's first freely-elected leader last year and is now poised to be elected president later this month.

The former army chief stepped squarely into the public eye this week with a lengthy televised interview and other public remarks. His words seem carefully calibrated to appeal to Egyptians' hunger for stability and to draw a line under the era of rapid transformation since the 2011 revolt that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

It is wrong to expect Egypt to turn into a Western-style democracy overnight, he said on his campaign site on Facebook.

"We always turn to the image of stable democracies in states that preceded us and compare them with Egypt," said Sisi. "Applying the models of Western democracies in the case of Egypt does an injustice to Egyptians. Egyptian society still faces time before it enjoys true democracy as it should be."

Sisi's interviews have revealed the gruff personality that his supporters say shows that he is a decisive man of action and his opponents say are signs of a new autocrat in waiting.

In an interview with two Egyptian television channels, CBC and ONTV, Sisi avoided getting into specifics about policy. He handled questions on sensitive topics by saying little, and told off the pro-army anchors when they interrupted him.

He also hinted at a cautious approach to economic reforms, saying the state should not move too quickly to dismantle the subsidies for fuel and food that Western backers say are unsustainable and have ruined public finances.

“The subsidies can’t be removed suddenly. People will not tolerate that.”

Many of his remarks stressed the need for a national effort. He urged every Egyptian to sacrifice, suggesting he had no ready cures for poverty, a fast-growing Islamist insurgency or unemployment.

"Sisi's rhetoric is much more about the need for hard work. He's not quite Churchillian but he certainly is not pandering on a material level," said Nathan Brown, an expert on Egypt based at George Washington University in the United States,

"Whether that will make any difference remains to be seen. But it is an indication that he wants to keep expectations low."

STABILITY

Sisi is expected to win the May 26-27 presidential election easily. The only other candidate is leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, who came third in the 2012 election won by Mursi.

Egyptians are mostly concerned with stability in a country beset by protests and political violence since Mubarak's fall.

Many of them see Sisi as the answer, even though men from the military who have ruled Egypt since 1952 were accused of mismanaging the nation.

His opponents fear Sisi will become yet another authoritarian leader who will preserve the interests of the military and the Mubarak-era establishment.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which had propelled Mursi to power at the ballot box, accuses Sisi of staging a coup against a legitimately chosen president and trampling on human rights.

Sisi says he acted according to the will of Egyptians, who staged mass protests against Mursi's rule.

He acknowledged abuses have been committed during one of the toughest security crackdowns in Egypt's modern history.

"We must understand that there cannot be a security situation with this depth and confusion that we are seeing, without some violations," he said. "There is law and procedures have been taken so that this does not happen again."

But he was very clear that he would press on with his campaign to destroy the Brotherhood, which won every election since Mubarak's ouster but has now been driven underground after security forces killed hundreds of its members and jailed thousands of others.

Asked whether the Brotherhood would cease to exist during his presidency, Sisi answered: "Yes. That's right."

(Additional reporting by Maggie Fick; Editing by Peter Graff)

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