CAIRO – Seven years ago, Cairo's Tahrir Square was filled with tens of thousands of Egyptians demanding change. Now it is plastered with portraits of the president, vowing continuity.
Almost all traces of the popular revolt that overthrew longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011 are now gone. Instead there are banners and posters — dozens of them — showing a beaming Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the general-turned-president who's running for re-election this week in a vote widely dismissed as a farce.
"What happened in Tahrir was the biggest threat to the network of corruption and theft throughout Egypt's modern history," said Wael Eskandar, a blogger and activist who took part in the protests that brought down Mubarak. "Tahrir symbolizes that threat and is a reminder that people can awaken and ask for their rights. That's why el-Sissi and his regime insist on appropriating it to erase a nation's memory."
The election, which begins Monday with voting staggered over three days, nearly ended up as a one-man referendum, after all serious challengers were arrested or pressured into withdrawing. The only other candidate to make the ballot, Moussa Mustafa Moussa, is a little-known politician who supports el-Sissi and has made almost no effort to campaign against him.
Banners extolling el-Sissi, often bearing the names of local businessmen or organizations advertising their support, have proliferated across Egypt, prompting mockery from some critics. But it is in Tahrir Square, where mass protests raised hopes of democratic change in the Arab world's most populous country, that the effect is most jarring.
In February 2011, protesters who had clashed with police and camped out in the square for 18 days erupted into cheers as the end of Mubarak's 29-year-rule was announced on a giant screen. Now, a massive LCD monitor plays pro-Sissi videos on a perpetual loop.
"Everyone loves him," said Hossam, as he left a store plastered with pro-el-Sissi posters. "Times are tight but we're betting on him. He saved the country," he said. He asked that his full name not be used, fearing reprisals for talking to foreign journalists, who are regularly vilified by Egypt's pro-government media.
The 2011 uprising ushered in a period of instability, as Egypt's military, the Muslim Brotherhood group and other Islamists, and a loose coalition of liberal parties vied for power. Egypt's first freely elected president, the Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi, proved divisive, and in the summer of 2013 tens of thousands of people returned to Tahrir Square, demanding his resignation.
The military, under the leadership of el-Sissi, removed Morsi from power and launched a massive crackdown on the Brotherhood, which won a series of elections held after the 2011 uprising but is now outlawed as a terrorist group. Authorities have jailed thousands of Islamists as well as several well-known secular activists, including many who played a leading role in the 2011 uprising. The media is dominated by pro-government commentators, and hundreds of websites have been blocked.
El-Sissi has said such measures are necessary to restore stability and revive the economy in a country of 100 million, one that is grappling with widespread poverty and confronting an Islamic State-led insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula.
He has also enacted a series of long-overdue economic measures, such as cutting subsidies and floating the local currency, and has championed mega-projects aimed at improving infrastructure and providing jobs. The economy is showing signs of improvement, but the austerity measures have made it even harder for Egyptians to make ends meet in a country where more than a fourth of the population lives below the poverty line.
With heavy restrictions on public opinion polling and an absence of critical voices in the media, it's impossible to know whether el-Sissi is as popular as the posters suggest. The best indication may come from turnout, which the government hopes will bolster the election's legitimacy.
Mohammed, a deliveryman who asked that his full name not be published for fear of reprisal, didn't know the name of the candidate running against el-Sissi and doesn't plan on voting.
"Normal people don't want (el-Sissi) to win. They would vote for any alternative, but there is no one," he said. "People with money, of course, want him to stay. He defends their interests. That's why they're putting up all these posters."