Sisi has the backing of many of Mubarak's close circle of advisers, who hope to gain the same power they had before the 2011 revolution
May 25, 2014
The man set to rule Egypt for the foreseeable future claims to wear the mantle of the 2011 revolution which overthrew his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.
Tell that to the government, or to the collection of old regime politicians who are galvanising support for his election as president next week, a vote many see as more of a coronation.
A raft of senior Mubarak-era figures are supporting former Field Marshal Abdulfattah el-Sisi's campaign from behind the scenes, as they prepare to regain the power and influence they lost – or perhaps even more.
"I supported and I still love Hosni Mubarak," said Haidar al-Baghdadi, a former MP for the once ruling National Democratic Party and an unashamed enthusiast for both Saddam Hussein and Syria's Bashar al-Assad. The NDP is now officially banned, but its leaders are still powerful today and include the current prime minister.
"Mubarak was a symbol of the country's security," said Mr Baghdadi, who is organising campaign rallies for Mr Sisi. "Now I stand with Field Marshal Sisi. He is a national hero, who has saved Egypt from the terrorism of the Muslim Brotherhood."
Mr Sisi is overwhelming favourite to win the election, scheduled for Monday and Tuesday this week, and usher in a new edition of the long decades when former military men – Gamal Abdul Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak – occupied the presidential palace.
Mr Sisi was defence minister when he overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood and its president, Mohammed Morsi, last July.
At the time he promised to implement a road-map to democracy, and many prominent supporters of the revolution against Mr Mubarak backed him, including liberal figureheads like Mohammed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace prize-winning former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Amr Moussa, the Egyptian Arab League secretary general.
Voters have already approved a new constitution, and the presidential elections are due to be followed by parliamentary elections later.
But key parts of Mr Mubarak's regime, which the 2011 Arab Spring revolutionaries thought they were emasculating, had their roles in the state reaffirmed or even strengthened in the constitution, including the judiciary, the police and the army.
The army's budget is not subject to government oversight, while it also has a veto on the appointment of the defence minister for the next eight years – a key role, given Mr Sisi's own use of that position to remove Mr Morsi.
Meanwhile, old regime figures are returning to office. General Mohammed el-Tohamy, a former general who was sacked as head of Mr Mubarak's anti-corruption agency by Mr Morsi after one of his staff alleged he used the position to cover up rather than investigate Mr Mubarak's financial dealings, has been made head of the general intelligence service, a position seen in the old regime as the second most powerful in the land.
The current prime minister, likely to be kept on by Mr Sisi if he wins the presidency according to those around him, is another old regime figure, Ibrahim Mehlab, who combined a long career as head of a state construction company with membership of the NDP's policy committee.
Both men were tangentially implicated in the embezzlement case which last week saw Mr Mubarak jailed for three years, according to a review of the full case files by an independent news website, Mada Masr.
Neither was charged with wrongdoing, and there were no direct allegations.
But it was Mr Mehlab's company that carried out much of the illegal refurbishment to the Mubarak family homes at the heart of the case, and which fraudulently charged the invoices to the government instead of the president. Mr Mehlab personally oversaw some of the work, according to the report.
The original investigator was the man who made the accusations against General Tohamy – and he has since been demoted.
Supporters of Mr Sisi and the new order point to the fact that the constitution limits his powers and makes it unlikely he will have the untrammelled authority of his predecessors. But in some ways, that only strengthens the influence of the country's old families and institutional networks.
Hisham Mostafa Khalil, a former MP ousted when parliament fell with Mr Mubarak, said: "With the new constitution, the power of the president becomes very limited. He's accountable to parliament."
That accountability depends on what form opposition will be allowed to take and on who manages to obtain seats. The Muslim Brotherhood, who were latterly the main opposition, has been termed a terrorist organisation, while the independent, liberal April 6 movement which helped organise the 2011 street protests has also been banned.
New political parties have been formed, but many of them, like Mr ElBaradei's Constitution Party, are dominated by the old Cairo elite.
For some, like Mr Khalil, himself the son of a prime minister of the Sadat era, this is only to be welcomed.
"In Egypt, historically, even before the 1952 revolution (which removed the monarchy), when we had our parliament the MPs came from the big families," he said. "It remained like that till the end.
"A lot of the people from the Mubarak time you won't see again. Half of them died, half of them are old. But you will see their sons and you will see their cousins. It's just the faces that have changed."
Mr Khalil, who represented the Qasr el-Nil constituency in the heart of Downtown Cairo, said he was still considering whether to stand again. Another prominent NDP politician, Abdulrahim el-Ghoul, said he was retiring.
"I have divorced myself from politics," he said. "Forty years of politics is enough for me," he added.
Asked who would take his place as MP for the deeply conservative area of Nagi Hammadi in Upper Egypt, he said: "Probably my nephew Lt Col Mohammed Abdulaziz el-Ghoul, who is an inspector in the general security directorate, but the family haven't met to confirm that yet."
Most of the international focus on Mr Mubarak's former officials has been on his immediate circle, and in particular the corruption allegations against his sons Gamal and Alaa, and their associates.
But even before Mr Mubarak was finally toppled, some activists said the army was tacitly encouraging criticism. It feared that the liberal economic reforms they were implementing were undermining the economic vested interests of army-run companies, which often appoint retired generals to remunerative sinecure directorships.
Mr Baghdadi, and other Sisi supporters, are now open in saying that they want to see an end to privatisation and a return to Egypt's earlier period of a socialist state-led economy. Mr Sisi has fudged this issue, raising the question of whether he will oversee a return to the old regime, or the even older regime.
His economic programme, finally unveiled at the end of the week, laid heavy stress on large-scale, state-led infrastructure projects, including an attempt to resurrect an early Mubarak-era scheme to build whole new desert cities for Egypt's burgeoning population. It was previously abandoned as unrealistic.
Many, including Mr Baghdadi, also urge an end to the alliance with America, and a return to the 1950s embrace of Russia.
Some liberals who supported Mr Sisi abandoned his project in the light of last summer's mass killings of hundreds of Brotherhood supporters.
Mr ElBaradei resigned as interim Vice-President and has now returned to Vienna, where he lived until 2009.
Others remain hopeful that there are enough checks and balances in the new system to ensure gradual change. Many rely on the ambiguous role of Tamarod, or "Rebellion", the protest movement which gathered signatures a year ago calling on Mr Morsi to resign and organised the mass demonstrations that were immediately followed by his removal.
It had support of many of the revolutionaries who overthrew Mr Mubarak two years before. But since then, the movement has split, with anti-Sisi renegades claiming that they had been duped, that elements of the "deep state", Mr Mubarak's secret police and intelligence services, had infiltrated the movement at an early stage and used it to engineer their return to power.
Mr Khalil, the former MP, concedes that the first parliament will be dominated in the early stages by supporters of Mr Sisi. But added: "After two or three years, we don't know what will happen."
Indeed, the constitution insists the president can serve only two terms, ruling out, in theory, a repeat of 30-year dictatorships like Mr Mubarak's.
Such polls as there have been in Egypt since the coup suggest the hysteria for Mr Sisi is not as overwhelming as the mass media make out. But then, Mr Mubarak was not as unpopular as some thought either – his last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, managed to win 48 per cent of the vote in the 2012 presidential election run-off.
However, there is little doubt that the 54 per cent approval rating which the Pew Research Centre estimated for Mr Sisi this/last week, along with a boycott called by the Brotherhood and other opposition groups, will be enough to earn him victory over the sole challenger, Hamdeen Sabbahy, a leftist.
Mr Sabbahy supported both the protests against Mr Mubarak and Mr Morsi, and fiercely opposes the Brotherhood. But his demand for a strong army with a civilian president seems to cut little ice with the anti-Islamist base who seem to think that if you are going to have a state based on law and order and national security it may as well be led by a military man.
The Muslim Brotherhood and a raft of "soft Islamist" and liberal groups are boycotting.
The police, who were in many ways the main object of the 2011 revolution, reviled for their brutality and corruption, are now seemingly popular again; two years in which they were largely absent from the streets have seemingly made the heart grow fonder.
Brotherhood spokesmen always alleged that the police deliberately refused to implement the rule of law during Mr Morsi's time in office in order to undermine his reputation.
Mr Sisi himself has not made any campaign appearances and limited his interviews to some unchallenging questions, mostly from Egyptian television stations. He has stressed the need to eliminate Islamist terrorism once and for all and to restore stability and law and order – old Mubarak catchphrases.
As for personal freedoms, he said they should be matched against national security concerns.
When asked about how long it would take to reach complete democracy, he said: "Twenty or twenty-five years."
*Photos courtesy of Associated Press