CAIRO — One year ago, Umm Fattih felt destined to live out her life in poverty. As a single, middle-aged woman with no means to support herself, she relied on charity from her neighbors and local mosque to survive.
But last summer, with the modest financial help of a few friends, Fattih purchased a refrigerator and glass display case to set up a tiny outdoor shop stocked with snacks and basic goods. The military had just assumed power, and Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s promise to restore security gave Fattih the confidence to start her own business, a longstanding dream of hers. Now, she proudly runs her store along with another woman from Cairo’s Manial neighborhood. She calls Sissi her savior.
“We follow Sissi!” she says beaming, pointing to a poster of the military leader that she handcrafted and strung on a rope above her shop. “Sissi will take care of the poor people.”
The return of the military to the center of Egyptian life has prompted a growing number of Egyptians to take chances on new businesses despite years of political turmoil and a crippled economy. While human rights activists decry an unrestrained crackdown on anyone who protests the military-backed government, and some rue the passing of the country’s brief experiment with democracy, entrepreneurs are putting faith in the one thing they count on Sissi to bring to Egypt: a sense of stability.
At least two others have opened small businesses on Fattih’s block alone since the military ousted President Mohammed Morsi last summer. Fattih says that Morsi was only focused on promoting the Muslim Brotherhood, which used to have a central office in her neighborhood.
“Morsi wasn’t interested in us. He only cared about his own group — not all Egyptians.”
The revolution has had a dismal effect on Egyptian businesses, hampering everything from conducting reliable bank transactions to importing goods cheaply. The number of tourists has drastically declined — in 2010, Cairo’s hotels were 80 percent full, but in January they only reached 20 percent occupancy, according to the Egyptian Tourism Federation. Even getting paperwork approved to launch a business takes much longer than it did before the revolution, says Robert Tashima, regional editor for Africa at the Oxford Business Group, an international research group that produces economic and investment reports.
Yet Tashima notes that despite an increasingly authoritarian political environment, Egypt’s entrepreneurs have reasons to be hopeful. “A huge consumer market, favorable demographics, solid industrial infrastructure and a strong export profile means that the scope for strong growth is significant,” he says.
In late January, after the military generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces gave Sissi the nod to pursue a presidential bid, the Egyptian stock market hit a 44-month high, bringing it to pre-revolution levels.
“Ultimately, the country is currently in the midst of a stabilization in its macroeconomic and fiscal situation which, if it can be maintained, should help Egypt accelerate its recovery over the next 24 months,” Tashima says.
Just around the corner from Fattih, Mohamed El Serafy mans the front counter at a pharmacy he opened last month. The pharmacy that used to occupy the space closed after the revolution began in 2011 due to the country’s instability and the rising cost of medicine.
El Serafy says that with Sissi taking hold of the country, his pharmacy just might make it. Still, he points to prohibitive prices as well as economic and political insecurity as signs that his business — and the business sector as a whole — has a long way to go. “Everything is a mess,” he says. “But eventually, things will improve.”
When asked for his opinion of the military leader who could be Egypt’s next president, the pharmacist hesitated.
“Sissi said Egypt will become the mother of the world again, and I believe him,” El Serafy says, looking uncomfortable. “But we don’t need anyone to tell us that,” he adds matter-of-factly.
Next door to the pharmacy, Ahmed El Hadry waits for customers at his fishing shop, which he opened just over a week ago to cater to Egyptians who fish on the Nile. His other shop in Cairo, which targets tourists and divers, now often goes a week without any customers making big purchases. He admits that opening another business was a risky move, and notes that only a few people trickled in during the shop’s first week.
“It’s very hard to open shops right now,” he says. “I need to feel secure. People feel more secure under Sissi.”
Yet he also fears that Sissi will not be able to effectively curb terrorism and violence if he gives up his military title and becomes president as a civilian, a required legal step to run for the presidency. And he worries about having a president who has used violence in his efforts to restore security. Under Sissi, the military has jailed thousands of critics, academics and journalists, security forces have killed thousands of Islamist and anti-government protesters, and the country has seen an uptick in bombings and terror attacks on security personnel.
“On his hands, there is blood,” El Hadry says.
Upon hearing this criticism of Sissi, a man in the shop buying bait turns around and screams. “Why are you refusing Sissi as president? Sissi is our army!” he booms, gesturing wildly with worms still clutched in his hand. In response, El Hadry issues a fearful apology, shocked that his honesty could warrant such rage and worried that he would lose a precious customer.
Despite cult-like public pressure to rally around Sissi and the interim government, El Hadry maintains that Egyptians themselves — not Sissi — must pull Egypt up by its bootstraps.
“If all of us stopped and did nothing, life would not go on,” he says, looking out at his shop filled with shiny new hooks and fluorescent bait. “Now is the time to take risks.”