CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's president-elect, the former army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, told Egyptians it is now "time to work" to rebuild the economy after he was officially declared the landslide winner of last week's election, restoring a career military man to the country's top office.
Thousands celebrated in public squares around the country with cheers, fireworks and pro-military songs after the Election Commission officially announced el-Sissi's victory with nearly 97% of the vote in an election that it said saw a turnout of just over 47%.
El-Sissi brings Egypt into a new phase in its tumultuous drama since the 2011 pro-democracy uprising that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak after 29 years in power. The following year, Islamist Mohammed Morsi became the country's first democratically elected president, only to face massive protests by millions against him and his Muslim Brotherhood.
El-Sissi, then the army chief, ousted Morsi last summer and led a heavy crackdown on the Brotherhood and other Islamists that killed hundreds and jailed thousands more. The now retired field marshal was elevated to heroic status among his supporters, who hailed his removal of Islamists and saw him as the hope for restoring stability after three years of turmoil.
El-Sissi now restores a chain of five Egyptian presidents of military background since the 1952 coup against the monarchy — with Morsi the sole exception, not counting two interim presidents.
"I am happy the army is back to power, and that he got rid of the Muslim Brotherhood," cheered one of his female supporters, Iman Adly, whose face was painted with the Egyptian flag, amid the celebration in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
But to critics — including many activists who led the 2011 revolt, known as the Jan. 25 Revolution — el-Sissi brings fears of a return to Mubarak's autocratic state. Already, there have been sharp limits put on the right to protest, secular dissenters have been arrested, reports of police abuses have risen, and the president-elect himself has said many rights must take a backseat to restoring stability.
But Mostafa Shawky, a leading activist, said the pro-democracy campaign would continue. "The defeat of January revolution is an interim defeat," he wrote on Twittter. "The consciousness among the youth who reject the rot is a victory for the revolution that … they won't be able to defeat."
The first world leader to congratulate el-Sissi was his close ally, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who was also opposed to the toppling of Mubarak. The monarch declared that the turmoil sparked by the Arab Spring should now come to a close.
"The brotherly Egyptian people have suffered during the past period of chaos. The short-sighted called it 'creative chaos,'" the king said in a letter on the Saudi state news agency.
He called for donors conference to help Egypt "get out of the tunnel," referring to its wrecked economy. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies have already given Egypt some $20 billion in aid, and more is expected after al-Sissi's win.
El-Sissi is to be sworn into office Sunday before a host of Egyptian and foreign dignitaries. Among those invited is Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, according to Rouhani's website. It did not say whether he would accept the invitation.
Speaking in a televised address after the results announcement, el-Sissi said, "It is now time to work — work that will carry Egypt to a bright tomorrow and better future and restore stability."
"The future Is a white page and it is in our hands to fill it as we wish," he said, wearing a dark suit and looking tanned.
In a clear nod to his revolutionary critics, he repeated the revolution's main slogan in the short address, promising "bread, freedom, dignity and social justice."
The Election Commission said el-Sissi garnered 23.78 million votes — or 96.9% of the total. His sole rival, leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, received 775,000 — fewer than the 1.4 million invalid ballots cast.
El-Sissi's victory was never in doubt, but he had pushed for a massive turnout to bestow legitimacy on his ouster of Morsi and the ensuing crackdown. The United States has suspended part of its annual $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt — which largely goes to the military — demanding authorities show they are returning to democracy.
But the goal of powerful public support was dented by the extraordinary means used by the military-backed government to hike voters' numbers.
When the first of two scheduled days of voting appeared slow, with many empty polling stations, the government threatened fines against non-voters, made bus and train travel free to help voters move to their districts, and took the extraordinary step of extending the vote to a third day.
Turnout on the third day was 10%, said Anwar el-Assi, the Election Commission.
El-Sissi faces a divided nation. Morsi's Islamist supporters boycotted the election and reject any government that comes after what they call a coup that wrecked Egypt's democracy. Islamic militants have been waging a campaign of bombings and shootings against police and the military.
Many Egyptians — even beyond the ranks of revolutionary youth groups — expressed fears during the election that el-Sissi has put military credibility in line if he fails to deliver promises to solve the nation's ills and will end hopes for greater democracy.
In more alarming step, the Interior Ministry, in charge of police, announced plans to set a new surveillance system over the Internet to monitor social networking sites for a wide range of forms of dissent, as well as for extremist activity. Social media were one of the main vehicles for the 2011 anti-Mubarak uprising.
But an Interior Ministry document on the plans published by the pro-military newspaper Al-Watan listed a wide variety of "grave and dangerous security challenges" on social media that must be monitored, including expressions of "contempt for religion," ''spreading rumors and tarnishing facts," ''humiliating mockery" of officials, as well as incitement to "extremism, violence, rebellion, rallying for demonstrations, sit-ins and illegal strikes."