In campaign with Mubarak era tones, Egypt's el-Sissi supporters embrace return of a strongman

The Associated Press

FILE - In this file photo taken Friday, May 16, 2014, an Egyptian supporter of presidential candidate Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the country's former military chief, holds a poster of him in downtown Cairo, Egypt. Only a slight majority of Egyptians look favorably on Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the former army chief who ousted the elected president and is now a heavy favorite to win next week's presidential elections, according to a poll released Thursday, May 22, by a U.S.-based research center. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra, File)

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By SARAH EL DEEB, Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) — Posters of former army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi hang everywhere on the streets of Egypt. In Cairo, his face lines highways and bridges and towers over city squares. In Alexandria, loudspeakers blast down the Mediterranean seaside road with songs praising him as the next president and a gift to Egypt after years of turmoil.

The campaign for next week's presidential election looks a lot like Egypt 2005. That was last presidential election under Hosni Mubarak, when the longtime autocrat agreed for the first time to allow candidates to run against him. After a campaign in which his opponents' faces were rarely seen in the streets or media, Mubarak swept with an official 88 percent of the vote.

Like Mubarak then, retired Field Marshal el-Sissi is a certain winner, though few think the vote will be plagued with fraud allegations like the 2005 one.

El-Sissi enjoys a massive mobilization of media and business interests supporting the man who last summer ousted Egypt's first democratically elected leader, Islamist Mohammed Morsi. Almost universally, newspapers and TV stations hail el-Sissi as the only one capable of guiding the country through a crippling economic crisis and violence by Islamic militants. His only opponent in the race, leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, has had little such enthusiasm.

The tone of the campaign reflects how, after the turmoil since Mubarak's 2011 ouster, many exhausted Egyptians are going full circle to embrace a strongman who can bring stability no matter what the worries over the future for democracy. The sector of society hailing el-Sissi — crossing rural-urban and rich-poor divides — has embraced the fierce crackdown on Islamist protesters that has killed hundreds and arrested thousands, welcomed the increased prominence of the once-hated police forces and had no problem with a broader clamp-down on other dissenters.

"People want a military man. We have already seen that a civilian president can't do much," Shaimaa Abdel-Hamid, a 26-year-old woman at a pro-el-Sissi rally in downtown Cairo this week. Unabashedly, she said she cried when Mubarak was toppled.

"We want security. Sure, health and education and all. But we want security first," she said.

Behind the media fervor, however, the country is deeply divided. A poll released Thursday the U.S.-based Pew Center showed a slim majority of 54 percent view el-Sissi favorably, and 45 percent unfavorably, with comparable figures on views for Morsi's ouster. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood was viewed favorably only by 38 percent — suggesting that the dislike of el-Sissi goes beyond the hardcore backers of the Islamic movement.

Pew's poll was based on face-to-face interviews with 1,000 adults conducted in April, with a margin of error of 4.3 percentage points

The divisions may not thwart a strong el-Sissi victory. But they could diminish his other aim, an overwhelming turnout, which his backers seek in order to make the case that Morsi's overthrow reflected the people's will.

The 2012 election that Morsi won saw fierce competition among 13 candidates in a spirited campaign. This time the mood is one of resignation.

Sameh Abdel-Khaleq, a 42-year old accountant from Port Said, has thrown in the towel. He counts himself among Egypt's revolutionaries: The past three years, he has backed protests, spoke out against authorities, and donated from his own pocket to pay for banners and legal costs for detained activists.

Now he says he'll vote for el-Sissi because he'll win anyway.

"We will go back to the Mubarak days," Abdel-Khaleq said. He listed the woes of the revolutionary movement: Activists have been arrested or intimidated into shutting up, a new draconian anti-protest law bans political gatherings without a police permit. Most of all, he says, the public is hostile to revolutionaries, more concerned with affording food.