MENA / AP
Sunday, June 8, 2014 | 11:19 a.m.
CAIRO — Egypt's former military chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, winner by a landslide in last month's presidential election, was sworn into office Sunday nearly a year after he ousted the nation's first freely elected leader.
The retired field marshal called for unity and hard work as tens of thousands gathered in squares across the nation to celebrate his inauguration, calling him a hero for toppling Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood.
But the July 3 ouster triggered a cycle of deadly violence and further polarized Egypt. Now, el-Sissi faces the daunting tasks of reviving Egypt's woeful economy, fighting Islamic militants and cementing his rule after three years of deadly turmoil in the Arab world's most populous country.
"The presidency of Egypt is a great honor and a huge responsibility," el-Sissi told local and foreign dignitaries hours after his swearing-in ceremony at the Supreme Constitutional Court.
Under his rule, el-Sissi said Egypt will work for regional security and stability. He also called on Egyptians to work hard so that their rights and freedoms could grow.
"Let us differ for the sake of our nation and not over it; let us do that as part of a unifying national march in which every party listens to the other objectively and without ulterior motives," he said. "Let our differences be the source of enrichment, diversity and giving that add the spirit of cooperation and love to our work."
El-Sissi's inauguration came less than a year after he ousted Morsi following days of mass protests demanding he step down. While praised by many in a wave of nationalist fervor fueled by a jingoistic media, el-Sissi's rise to power coincided with the detention of thousands and the killing of hundreds of Morsi supporters.
But supporters drew comfort from his ascension, convinced he is the right man for Egypt.
"When he officially became president a few hours ago, I instantly felt more safe," said school teacher Iglal Attiyah, who celebrated at Cairo's famed Tahrir Square with her three children. "Here I am, with my kids. I am not afraid. I felt secure even from the moment we voted for him."
Her two girls wore headbands reading: "We love you el-Sissi." Her boy had Egypt's red, white and black flag painted on his cheek.
"I feel like I'm breathing new oxygen," said Mamdouh Ali Bilal, a retired army colonel also celebrating at the square. "El-Sissi is bringing hope with him, unlike the Brotherhood people. They were like a dark room that makes us constantly afraid of what may be planned next for us."
Yet Egypt's recent, tumultuous history remained close by. El-Sissi, 59, took the oath of office at the Supreme Constitutional Court, the same venue where Morsi, now on trial for charges that carry the death penalty, was sworn in two years ago.
The court is a short distance away from a military hospital where autocrat Hosni Mubarak, toppled in Egypt's 2011 revolt, is being held. Mubarak was convicted last month on graft charges and sentenced to three years in prison. He is also being retried over the killing of protesters during the 18-day revolt after his original conviction and life sentence were successfully appealed.
Authorities declared Sunday a national holiday for el-Sissi's inauguration and police and troops deployed throughout Cairo. The entire Cabinet, as well as el-Sissi's wife, four children and their spouses, attended the swearing-in ceremony.
Outgoing interim president Adly Mansour, installed by el-Sissi after the overthrow, will return to his post as the chief justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court.
El-Sissi is Egypt's eighth president since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1953, the year after a military coup. With the exception of Morsi and two civilians who served in an interim capacity, all of Egypt's presidents have come from the armed forces.
A 21-gun salute greeted el-Sissi as he arrived at the Ittiahdiya presidential palace in Cairo's upscale district of Heliopolis after being sworn in. He welcomed dozens of local and foreign dignitaries, including the kings of Jordan and Bahrain, the emir of Kuwait and the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, the largest and wealthiest of the seven sheikdoms that make up the United Arab Emirates.
The five Arab nations backed el-Sissi's ouster of Morsi. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Emirates since have provided billions of dollars to shore up Egypt's ailing finances and are expected to give more while the country rebuilds.
El-Sissi won nearly 97 percent of the vote in last month's election, with a turnout of 47.45 percent. The three-day election was declared free of fraud but was tainted by the extraordinary means used by authorities to get the vote out, including a threat to fine those who stayed home, a one-day voting extension, and allowing free rides on trains and buses to encourage voters to travel to their home districts to cast their ballots.
Morsi supporters boycotted the vote and have also called for massive demonstrations to mark Morsi's July 3 ouster, though their ranks have thinned considerably.
Morsi's Islamist backers accuse el-Sissi of crushing Egypt's young democracy. Many of the secular youths behind the 2011 uprising say he has revived Mubarak's police state, pointing to a law passed last year that restricts protests as well as the jailing of a number of well-known activists.
In interviews, el-Sissi made it clear that his priorities are security and the economy, maintaining that free speech must take a back seat while he fights Islamic militants and works to revive the ailing economy.
El-Sissi's plans for the economy have generated less enthusiasm. He advocates heavy government involvement in the economy, with state-sponsored mega-projects to create jobs and the government setting prices for some goods. At the same time, he has vowed to be business-friendly and encourage investment.
Associated Press writer Mariam Rizk contributed to this report.