Strongman Sissi sworn in as Egypt's leader

Faces political polarization and fiscal dysfunction

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CAIRO -- Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the former general who led the military takeover here nearly one year ago, was sworn in as president Sunday, testing the bet that a new strongman can overcome the economic dysfunction and political polarization that bedeviled Egypt's three-year experiment with open democracy.

In an address to dozens of visiting heads of state gathered in the gilded presidential palace, Mr. Sissi pledged to work for security and stability in Egypt and the region.

"It is time for our great people to reap the harvest of their two revolutions," Mr. Sissi said, referring to the 2011 uprising that forced out President Hosni Mubarak and the 2013 protests that preceded the military takeover.

Mr. Sissi vowed to lead an "inclusive" national journey, "where each party listens to the other with impartiality, where we disagree for the sake of our homeland and not over it, where our differences are enriching and diversifying, and bestowing the spirit of cooperation and love on our shared patriotic labors."

In a later televised speech at a second celebration, however, Mr. Sissi also pointedly ruled out any reconciliation with those who "committed crimes" or "adopted violence as a methodology" -- charges understood here as a clear reference to any of the Islamist supporters of the deposed president, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

"There is no place for them in this march forward," he added. "I say it loud and clear: no cooperation or appeasement for those who resort to violence and those who want to disrupt our movement to the future."

And Mr. Sissi singled out for appreciation one foreign leader, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Mr. Sissi's chief international sponsor, whose government has donated several billion dollars to bankroll the military takeover and keep the lights on in Cairo.

Mr. Sissi and the departing interim president, Adly Mansour, sitting at two gleaming writing desks, signed a document commemorating what they described as Egypt's first peaceful transition of power. But Mr. Sissi's inauguration effectively formalizes his exercise of the power he has already wielded as the nation's paramount decision-maker since he deposed and jailed Mr. Morsi on July 3.

Mr. Mansour, a senior judge, was named interim president by Mr. Sissi himself, so in a sense he is merely returning the chair. Shaking hands, the two men leaned in to kiss each other on the cheeks.

Only a few scattered protests across the country were reported Sunday. Thousands of people celebrated in Tahrir Square, the center of the 2011 uprising, now surrounded by tanks and barbed wire.

Mr. Sissi, who received more than 95 percent of the votes in a pro forma election last month, for the first time holds direct responsibility for confronting challenges as formidable as any Egypt has faced in the six decades since the overthrow of the British-backed monarchy. The economy was a sieve of unaffordable fuel subsidies and rampant corruption even before the tumult of the past three years, and it has been devastated by the collapse of its vital tourism business. Since the ouster of Mr. Morsi, the military-backed government has killed more than a thousand of his Islamist supporters during street protests and has jailed at least 16,000, reinforcing distrust and division.

A widening crackdown on both Islamist and liberal dissent has shut down political debate and extinguished hopes for reconciliation, and attacks on soldiers and police officers by militants seeking retribution for the takeover have undermined public security.

The inaugural ceremony Sunday, however, suggested Mr. Sissi, 59, was at least in full control of the Egyptian state, with little expectation of legislative, judicial or bureaucratic checks on his power -- a sharp contrast to Mr. Morsi's troubled year in the presidential palace.

On the eve of Mr. Morsi's victory as Egypt's first democratically elected leader in June 2012, the Supreme Constitutional Court -- its members all appointed under Mr. Mubarak -- abruptly dissolved the newly elected and Islamist-led Parliament on a procedural technicality. The court ordered the transfer of legislative and budgeting power to Egypt's top generals, who refused to allow the new president to be sworn in before either a crowd of citizens or an assembly of elected officials, as Mr. Morsi preferred.

Instead, he was forced to stand, teeth clenched, before the judges of the same court as they lectured him about their own importance. And continuous judicial battles, police insubordination and unchecked street protests vexed his administration for the 12 months until the military takeover ended his rule.

Mr. Sissi, in contrast, was welcomed into the court as a national savior who had already revived Egypt at a time when "some had declared it dead," as Maher Sami, the court's deputy chief, declared in a lavish tribute to the president.

The new president has little to fear from the court or legislature in part because Mr. Mansour, his close ally, is returning to his previous role as chief of the constitutional court. The court will be the main judge of Mr. Mansour's official acts as president over the past year and Mr. Sissi's going forward. And in his final days before leaving office, Mr. Mansour issued a law governing parliamentary elections that all but ensures that the new Parliament will be a rubber stamp for Mr. Sissi, excluding the Islamists who had dominated Egypt's free elections and minimizing the hopes of upstart liberal parties.

Work crews had toiled through the weekend to beautify the area along the Nile facing the court for Mr. Sissi's arrival Sunday morning, and two wide red carpets were draped down its long, neoclassical steps. (Mr. Sissi, in a blue suit and sunglasses, entered by a side door.)

In his tribute before he administered the oath, Mr. Sami portrayed Mr. Sissi as both heir and redeemer of the original 2011 revolt. The initial uprising against "tyranny and corruption" had fallen "captive" to the Muslim Brotherhood -- the Islamist group whose party had won the most votes in parliamentary and presidential elections -- and the Brotherhood had "pounced on it, decimated it and ripped it to bloody shreds just like they ripped apart the body of the whole state, just like they ripped apart the body of the entire homeland," Mr. Sami said.

Although the term "revolution" typically refers to the overturning of one legal order to establish another, Mr. Sami argued that Egypt's revolution had erred by violating the country's constitutional traditions, and thus "a revolution against the revolution" had become necessary.

That, he said, was what happened last summer. "It was not a military coup," he said. "It was the revolution of a people."

Addressing Mr. Sissi as a "revolutionary soldier, Egypt's devout son," Mr. Sami told him. "In spite of the dangers and perils of this difficult choice, you made it for the sake of rescuing Egypt." Grateful Egyptians, the judge said, saw in Mr. Sissi "a bright tomorrow and a new birth."


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