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Opinion: El-Gamaleya and the Scent of History | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A handout picture made available on June 8, 2014 by the Egyptian presidency shows President elect Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C) reviewing the honour guard during the handing over of power ceremony in Cairo. Sisi was sworn in as Egypt’s president, formalising his de facto rule since he deposed the elected Islamist last year and crushed […]

History can occasionally be colored by a simple quirk of fate. One such example is the Egyptian people choosing to elect President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi—a man who was born and raised in the El-Gamaleya neighborhood of Fatimid Cairo. This ancient neighborhood inspired many of the characters that populate the novels of Egyptian writer and Nobel prize-winner, Naguib Mahfouz. He famously described the neighborhood as being “Egypt itself,” a microcosm of the history of the country.

Since the monarchy was abolished, Egypt has seen around a total of seven presidents who came from different governorates around the country, whether in the south or the north. All of these presidents were members of the middle class, the backbone of any society. However newly elected President Sisi is the first Cairene President of Egypt. Sisi, who comes to power on the back of a clear public mandate, grew up in the heart of Fatimid Cairo. El-Gamaleya is akin to a living museum with its narrow streets and alleys and ancient buildings that have witnessed more than a millennium’s worth of history.

This is nothing more than a quirk of fate; where Sisi was born and raised does not carry any political connotations. Despite this, Naguib Mahfouz would no doubt have been pleased to see someone from the old neighborhood reaching Cairo’s Ittihadiya presidential palace.

An obvious state of jubilation was visible across Egypt on Monday following Sisi’s inauguration when he took the oath of office before the country’s Supreme Constitutional Court, with outgoing interim president Adly Mansour also present. The joy of the crowds on the streets following Sisi’s election was clear to see. However, this joy could not hide the general state of anxiety in the country, and the awareness of the magnitude of the challenges facing the new president and his administration. The Sisi administration will have to address and repair the general situation in the country, which has deteriorated significantly over the past three years. This is not to mention the problems that have been accumulating over the past decades without any real long-term solutions being put forward.

The Egyptian public was visibly relieved to see the Egyptian state retain its basic features and character despite three years of exposure to all kinds of dangers. During the Muslim Brotherhood era there was an attempt to replace the state with a parallel authority. When Egyptians criticized and revolted against the state in 2011, they were calling for state reform and development—not the unraveling of the state and its replacement with with militias and parallel organizations.

No one should underestimate the size of the challenges facing the new president. But the new discourse that has been put forward by Adly Mansour, and which Sisi is continuing, is different to the political discourse of the past and reflects the seriousness of the current leadership, as well as their new understanding of the role that society expects them to play.

Sisi’s speech to the Egyptian people following his inauguration demonstrated this new discourse, particularly when he said that it would dishonest and unrealistic of him to promise ordinary Egyptians he would be able to resolve all the challenges he has inherited. However, the new president did promise to work hard to achieve this goal. More importantly, he also spoke about the social contract being a commitment that must be honored by both sides: the state—represented by the president and state institutions—and the people.

The social contract is one of the most significant elements of a modern, stable state. Unlike ousted president Mohamed Mursi, who in his inauguration speech sprang a surprise by congratulating his own Muslim Brotherhood group, Sisi opened his speech by addressing “my fellow citizens”—a traditional expression the Egyptian people have long grown accustomed to hearing from their presidents.

There are many challenges and problems, but it is positive that the two sides of the social contract have internalized an awareness of the fact that they need to work together in order to overcome the challenges ahead.