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Despite the fairly liberal nature of the constitution - it was drafted by a 50-member panel dominated by secular figures - el-Sissi’s commitment to freedoms is unclear. Liberal activists say there have been increasingly discouraging signs, from placing stringent conditions on protest and shutting down Islamic TV channels to jailing prominent pro-democracy activists. In this week’s referendum, campaigns for a “no” vote resulted in arrests.

Critics note that for all its liberal clauses on the civil rights front, the new constitution does not touch on the military’s unusual and vast business holdings across Egypt and gives it the exclusive right to choose the defense minister for the next eight years.

The military contends that its business holdings, which had been above any type of civilian oversight, provide reliable and cheap services and goods to Egyptians and that its right to choose a defense minister is required in the face of the ongoing terror campaign waged by the Islamic militants.

If el-Sissi runs, most observers expect him to win by a landslide, becoming the latest in a line of military men who became president since the monarchy was toppled in the early 1950s. He would be the first from the armed forces to be freely elected.

As president, el-Sissi would face daunting problems: a terrorist campaign by Islamic militants and a veritable insurgency in the Sinai desert; high unemployment; soaring food prices; low worker productivity; rising crime; and a feared reduction in Egypt’s water supply by a dam still under construction on the Nile in Ethiopia.

Behind closed doors in his Defense Ministry office, el-Sissi has been poring over thick files on domestic issues such as education, social services, subsidies and investment, the insiders said Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the topics. They said a broad plan of action to pull Egypt out of its crisis has been drafted.

A national project was needed to rally the people behind its leadership, just like the construction of the Aswan Dam did in Egypt’s socialist days in the 1960s. Such a project, the insiders said, would most likely be building at least one nuclear reactor to generate electricity. Another project could be the overhaul of overcrowded shantytowns around Cairo, or a free, universal health care system.


Associated Press reporters Maggie Hyde and Mariam Rizk contributed to this report.