CAIRO – Along a busy Cairo roundabout, a poster portrays presidential front-runner Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi as a teacher, engineer, doctor and judge, reassuring supporters who see him as Egypt’s savior.
But in other neighborhoods, opponents splash red paint on the image of the face of the man who toppled Egypt’s first freely elected president, and who they say has blood on his hands for ordering a violent crackdown.
The former army chief is expected to easily win the country’s presidential election, which kicked off Monday and runs through Tuesday. If he does, he will take over a polarized country with immense challenges: from an energy crisis to an Islamist militant insurgency that has sharply worsened since el-Sissi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi last year.
El-Sissi has gained cultlike adulation among backers since removing Morsi. Many Egyptians vocally supported the military-backed government’s decision to order an assault on camps of Morsi supporters last year in which hundreds of people were gunned down on the Cairo streets.
They still back a crackdown that saw thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members rounded up and hundreds sentenced to death. But some cracks have appeared in the field marshal’s support base since the suppression of Islamists has expanded to include secular activists.
Many Egyptians seem willing to overlook allegations of abuse because they see him as a leader who can bring calm after three years of political upheaval.
“Sissi has power to achieve stability,” said accountant Islam Ra’fat, 25.
With Egypt beset by seemingly intractable problems, the square-jawed 59-year-old in aviator sunglasses benefits from an image as a man of action. In television interviews, el-Sissi tells Egyptians the answer to their future is simple: hard work. He faces no serious opposition in the vote.
But to a quiet minority of Egyptians, his rise represents an unsettling reversal of the 2011 uprising that dislodged former air force general Hosni Mubarak after six decades of unbroken rule by military men.
“We will soon see that all this talk is lies,” said a 22-year-old man at a coffee shop near the poster which portrays el-Sissi as the man who will save Egypt, which was paid for by a former member of Mubarak’s ruling party.
“One of the main reasons we staged the revolution (in 2011) was to get rid of a military man,” said the man, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals.
El-Sissi’s aides describe him as a man of few words, who carefully listens to others. It is a description familiar to neighbors who knew him as an aloof youngster in al-Gamaliya, the poor Cairo district with dirt lanes where he grew up.
They say he kept to himself and worked hard to achieve success — an image in line with his public persona. Some have spoken of how he used to work out lifting homemade bar bells.
But his self-composure also hid a fierce temper, said Ali Hosan, an al-Gamaliya resident.
“When he lost his temper he really lost it,” he said. “I remember two guys provoked him once and he beat them both up.”
The discipline, and the temper, may both be evident in his handling of security in office: he has vowed that he will eradicate Morsi’s 85-year-old Brotherhood once and for all. Critics say the ferocity of the crackdown so far has driven more Islamists from the mainstream Brotherhood, which publicly disavows violence, into the arms of more radical groups.
Hundreds of police and soldiers have been killed by insurgents mainly based in the Sinai peninsula since last year.
Outside of el-Sissi’s area of expertise in security, his policies are less well known, but his behavior and public remarks suggest he may be cautious rather than an action hero.
In interviews he has said Egypt must be careful over the removal of costly state subsidies on fuel and food, which the International Monetary Fund and others say are urgently needed to restore the country’s finances.
Born on Nov. 19, 1954, el-Sissi rose to the position of head of military intelligence under Mubarak, and was the youngest member of the military council that ruled for 18 turbulent months after Mubarak resigned on Feb. 11, 2011.
Morsi shunted aside an older generation of generals to appoint el-Sissi army chief and defense minister in August 2012, in a mistaken calculation that the military would let the Brotherhood pursue its Islamist agenda. El-Sissi’s reputation as a pious Muslim may have led Morsi to expect him to be less hostile than other brass to the Islamist cause.
Now, some Egyptians voice fear that el-Sissi will become yet another authoritarian leader who will crush the hopes of democracy, reform and social justice aroused by the protests that swept away Mubarak. Even in al-Gamaliya, where he enjoys hero status, some question his intentions.
Standing near a coffee shop with old black and white photos of Arab autocrats including Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi hanging alongside posters of el-Sissi, Yasser al-Sayed pulled up his trouser leg.
He exposed a scar from a bullet wound on his calf, recalling how he was shot by police two years ago in protests against the military council that ruled Egypt after Mubarak’s fall.
“Sissi is Mubarak. He is just another military man. Sissi fooled Egyptians. He is backed by Mubarak’s people,” said Sayed. “The military should stay in their barracks and build airplanes not rule the country again.”