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Egyptians await el-Sissi’s probable accession to presidency

Tumultuous political change is taking its toll on Egypt and the effects are being felt far from the capital's Tahrir Square.

From the fall of Hosni Mubarak to the rise and demise of Mohammed Morsi, Egyptians have ridden a roller coaster of emotion. As the Muslim Brother Mr. Morsi goes on trial on Monday, charged with inciting murder, General Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, head of the army, is poised to become the next president. This is the case, despite the fact that his forces have killed some 1,000 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood in a recent crackdown. Egyptians don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Mansoura, a city of 500,000 at the centre of the lush Nile Delta 120 kilometres north of Cairo, has known conflict before. The city's name means "victorious" and comes from the 13th-century battle in which Egyptian forces, led by Saladin's nephew, defeated and captured King Louis IX of France, ending the Seventh Crusade. An air battle was fought over the city in the 1973 Arab-Israel War, but mostly this centre of rich farmland has known peace and modest prosperity.

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No more. These days, the political frustrations of the past 2 1/2 years are turning Mansouran against Mansouran.

On Monday, three police officers were gunned down at a checkpoint here in an attack attributed to supporters of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Clashes have been breaking out at the university as young Brotherhood supporters call for the return of Mr. Morsi and are met with increasingly violent groups that favour the military.

The Muslim Brotherhood, offering its blend of piety, social welfare and political activism, came of age in the Delta and fit right into communities such as Mansoura.

Today, Khaled el-Hamdy, 60, hardly recognizes the place.

A professor of science and member of the Brotherhood, he was popularly elected president of the 50,000-member agriculture syndicate. These days he's afraid to go outside. He fears arrest and then having his home ransacked, he said.

"Almost all my Brotherhood friends have either been killed, arrested or are in hiding," Prof. el-Hamdy said. "The organized face of the Muslim Brotherhood is non-existent."

He had been so happy when Mr. Mubarak was ousted, "but also a little worried," Prof. el-Hamdy said. "We knew that though Mubarak was out, the [political/military/business] system remained."

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Mr. Morsi proved no match for the system, he said.

Just across from the professor's modest university-supplied apartment is Teraa Street, a bustling road that passes through a series of middle- and working-class neighbourhoods on its way to the centre of the city. It's lined with shops selling wedding dresses, grocery stores and family pharmacies; its side streets are awash with laundry lines. It's a street favoured by protesters.

On the evening of July 19, in the middle of Ramadan, a march protesting Mr. Morsi's removal from power came down the street, heading toward the university. At the point where the road takes a big curve to the right before straightening out again, the protesters were met by a gang of thugs.

Increasingly, people in Mansoura say, groups opposed to the Muslim Brothers are hiring young toughs to carry out attacks on protesters. This night, the assailants pulled out hand guns and three women were killed, shot in the head at close range.

Not wishing anyone harm such as this, Elsayed Zahran, a Teraa Street shopkeeper, understands why hatred of the Brotherhood has become so visceral. "The Muslim Brothers are garbage," he declares, not caring who hears him. "They lie. They steal. If it weren't for the army, we'd all be dead."

Mr. Zahran, 55, sits at the front of his children's clothing store, pouring tea. He says he was sad when Mr. Mubarak was forced out of office, though he understood why his time was up. "He didn't innovate," he said. "And he let his wife and son run the country."

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"But Morsi was a traitor," Mr. Zahran said. "He put the constitutional court under siege. How could a president do that?"

Gen. el-Sissi would make an excellent president, Mr. Zahran said. "Egypt needs a strong military man in charge."

Down the road at a lingerie store, Samar Mahmoud's eyes lit up at the mention of Gen. el-Sissi's name. "I just love him," she said. The 21-year-old sales clerk thinks the general could end the nightmare of the past 2 1/2 years. "We were so much better off under Mubarak," she said. "I never thought Morsi had the quality to be president."

Ms. Mahmoud recalls how business fell during the year Mr. Morsi was in power, and remembers the night officials came into the store and demanded she cover the mannequins in the window with long black robes that concealed even their faces.

"I wanted to tell them to mind their own business, but I couldn't," she said. "We covered them up."

Gihad Zayed, 22, is a devout Muslim and graduate student at Mansoura University. She rides the bus 90 minutes each way from her village to work on her master's degree in communications. Both her parents are teachers, and Ms. Zayed wants to start her own public-relations firm.

Despite her faith, Ms. Zayed didn't vote for Mr. Morsi as president. She voted for Ahmed Shafiq, a secular former prime minister under Mr. Mubarak.

"It would have been better if there were no Muslim Brotherhood candidate for president," she reasoned. "Now the Islamic card has been burned."

Muslim Brothers are feeling excluded, she said. "Already they are turning to violence."

Would she like to see Gen. el-Sissi as the next president? "Absolutely not. If he becomes president, he'll be just like Morsi, an autocrat."

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More


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