By Ali Abdelaty
CAIRO (Reuters) – Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was sworn in for a second term as Egyptian president on Saturday amid a crackdown on his opponents, after a landslide victory in a March election in which all serious opponents had withdrawn.
Egyptian air force fighter planes drew the Egyptian flag across the sky in red, white and black smoke, while helicopters buzzed over the former military chief’s motorcade as he approached parliament early on Saturday.
“I assure you that accepting the other and creating common spaces between us will be my biggest concern to achieve consensus, social peace and real political development in addition to our economic development,” Sisi said in a speech after he took the oath. It was followed by a 21-gun salute in celebration, as lawmakers clapped and cheered.
“I will not exclude anyone from this common space except those who chose violence, terrorism and extremist thought as a way to impose their will,” Sisi added during the ceremony, broadcast live on television.
Sisi has overseen a crackdown on political opponents and an increasingly bloody battle with Islamic State insurgents in the Sinai peninsula during his first term. He has also struggled to revive the economy while pushing through tough IMF-backed austerity measures tied to a $12 billion loan programme.
His supporters say his harsh measures are needed to protect the state from turmoil unleashed since protests toppled long-serving autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
His critics say he has stifled the prospect of democracy, while the economic reforms that include subsidy cuts and tax hikes have pushed up prices and eroded his popularity.
A rise in fares on the Cairo metro last month ignited rare displays of public anger, and more subsidy cuts are on the way, including in fuel and electricity.[nL5N1SK0U1]
The 63-year-old former intelligence chief and defence minister led the overthrow of Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood – Egypt’s first freely-elected president – after protests against Mursi’s rule in 2013. Sisi was elected to his first four-year term as president a year later.
In March Sisi won 97 percent of the vote, but turnout was just 41 percent. The election featured only one other candidate, himself an ardent Sisi supporter, after all serious opposition contenders halted their campaigns in January.
The main challenger was arrested and his campaign manager beaten up, while other hopefuls also pulled out, citing intimidation.[nL8N1PI3DE][nL8N1PJ2T1][nL4N1PV4R4]
Since the election dozens of mostly secular or socialist Sisi critics have been arrested and are being investigated on charges that include spreading fake news and belonging to illegal or terrorist organisations. [nL5N1SU33P][nL5N1SY0AB]
Rights groups say Sisi has muzzled political opponents, activists and critical media, while courts have passed death sentences on hundreds of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The recent wave of arrests has drawn criticism from the European Union, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and international rights organizations.
The latest wave of arrests “shows the state has zero tolerance for critical voices and anyone who was expecting a softening of repression in Sisi’s second term was mistaken,” said Timothy Kaldas, non-resident fellow at the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
(additional reporting and writing by Amina Ismail; Editing by David Stamp and Peter Graff)