May 30, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: When a Victory Isn’t a Win: Egypt’s Presidential Election
It’s a bad sign when a 93% electoral victory isn’t considered a win. As expected, former Defense Minister and current acting president Abdul Fattah Sa’id Husayn al-Sisi won Egypt’s presidential election this week. Somewhat less expected, his rival, Hamdin Sabahi, received essentially the same amount of votes deemed fraudulent (defaced protest ballets) . But unexpected was the dismal turnout in the face of strenuous government efforts to push up the vote total and claim a mandate. The rate of participation varies wildly, from 15%-47%, but even the higher (and dubious) number is well below the government’s hopes for a strong show of support. The Egyptian government not only extended voting by a day but it also created a government holiday to further encourage participation. And still, even the highest turnout estimate is below the 52% participation in the election that brought former President Muhammad Morsi to power, however briefly.
The diminished turnout is more than a source of wounded pride for the newly elected al-Sisi. It may represent doubt that al-Sisi can turn Egypt around from its current path of dangerously slow economic growth and increasing levels of violence.
Al-Sisi has received substantial financial support from patrons such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but Egypt must still work to improve and develop its economy. Al-Sisi ran a campaign that featured a vague public persona, as a stabilizing force needed for a country tired of a still-sputtering revolution. He provided no details as to how he would steady not only Egypt’s economy but also its rising tensions with violent extremist groups based in the Sinai and striking in Cairo and other urban areas.
Al-Sisi obviously has meaningful public support—with preliminary tallies showing he will receive over 4.2 million votes to Sabahi’s 133,000—but not in the amount he likely assumed, given the relatively broad support for Morsi’s 2013 removal and the genuine support for the initial calm al-Sisi provided. Reputation-based support has a shorter shelf life than al-Sisi might have counted on, leading to low turnout. Furthermore, the lack of a credible political rivals makes more challenging an accurate assessment of al-Sisi’s true support.
It is also difficult to accurately assess Egyptians’ true sentiment regarding the once-and-now-again banned Muslim Brotherhood, given the crackdown on the group and its supporters. The low turnout, helped by MB’s call for a boycott, suggests there is some meaningful public support for the group despite its fall from power.
In this respect, Egypt is not alone in this incongruous backing of both a relatively secular strong man and a religious framework for governance. Egyptians might prefer the short-term stability of al-Sisi but that preference is not an actual choice, which is consistent with the lack of credible opposition and the outright banning of the party of the last government. The same can be said for Libya. Both countries are riven with tensions between the need for true reform and development—which creates an atmosphere of chaos, to say the least—and the need for stability, which can stifle true reform and development if applied too heavily.
It remains to be seen whether al-Sisi can generate an effective government given the absence of broad support, and what he will or can do to move Egypt away from revolt and towards progress. Al-Sisi’s support comes from the military, the enduring Egyptian institution, which bodes poorly for the chances of true economic reform given the military’s control of the hidden economy. Any moves he makes will need the support of the very people he will need to diminish, hardly a recipe for sweeping reform.
Al-Sisi will also need to balance the public’s desire for some level of religious governance with the government’s need to avoid another MB-styled debacle. Morsi’s government was so ineffective that it alienated a broad segment of ostensibly reliable supporters, but those constituents and their demands remain, just without a party or a candidate. Al-Sisi will also need to avoid unflattering comparisons with former president and deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak, while managing to maintain a semblance of stability through aggressive but selective action against violence extremism. The challenges of leading Egypt out of its morass are significant enough without lack of public support further complicating matters.
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