Thursday, 29 May 2014

Al-Sisi - not quite the conquering hero

        The media predictions were unanimous  – Egypt’s presidential election would be a walkover.  Ever since the overthrow of the previous administration together with its president, Mohamed Morsi, back in July 2013, a cult of personality had been assiduously fostered within Egypt around the man who had led the uprising – Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.  The campaign had been notably successful. His face appeared frequently on state-run TV and newspapers, on billboards and posters, even on chocolates, underpants and keyrings, and his popularity ratings soared.  A runaway triumph in the presidential election set for Monday and Tuesday, May 26 and 27, was confidently assumed by the military régime, a prediction boosted by the fact that he secured 95 per cent of votes cast in advance by Egyptians overseas.

            Then, as so often happens in elections run cleanly and in accordance with democratic principles (monitors from the European Union and US-funded Democracy International were observing the vote), the electorate failed to act as expected.  Sisi had called for record voter participation ­– a turnout of 40 million, or 80 per cent of the electorate – but Reuters reported that as voting began, lines outside polling stations in various parts of Cairo were short.

            Shaken by these early reports of voter apathy, the military-backed government launched a determined effort to get out the vote. Tuesday was declared a public holiday. Train fares were waived in an effort to boost voter numbers.  The justice ministry said that Egyptians who did not vote would be fined, and local media loyal to the government chided the public for not turning out in large enough numbers. Prominent public figures appeared on state TV to urge voters to head to the polls.

Despite these efforts, in some cases no voters at all could be seen outside some polling stations on Tuesday May 26, the second day of voting. Stations originally due to close at 9 pm were kept open for an extra hour.  Then came the announcement that the election was to be extended into the Wednesday, May 28, drawing from Democracy International the comment:  "[this] raises more questions about the independence of the electoral commission, the impartiality of the government, and the integrity of Egypt's electoral process."

In the 2012 presidential election, won by Morsi, turnout was 52 per cent.  The interim regime clearly believed that Sisi must attract a higher level of support than that if he was to enjoy full political legitimacy, and they hoped that the extension of polling would produce a more convincing result.

It didn’t.  In the final analysis turnout was not higher than 44.4 per cent of Egypt's 54 million voters, according to the judicial sources.  Predictably, government reports of the results focused entirely on the fact that, of those that did bother to vote, Sisi captured 92.2 per cent. His only rival, leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, gained 3.8 per cent.

Victory for al-Sisi indeed – but victory with a sour taste.

What caused the election to go pear-shaped?

An examination of Egyptian public opinion in the run-up to the election might have yielded hints of the less-than-wholehearted enthusiasm of the electorate, taken as a whole, for al-Sisi. For example, an eve-of-election opinion poll by the Washington-based Pew Research Center showed Sisi viewed favourably by 54 percent and unfavourably by 45 percent of the electorate.

Then, of course, the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies had called for a boycott of the presidential election. Despite the regime’s severe crackdown on the Brotherhood and its supporters in the run-up to the election (the security forces had killed hundreds of Morsi's supporters and arrested an estimated 20,000 activists), a substantial proportion of the Egyptian public retained its support for the Brotherhood, and regarded Morsi’s overthrow as illegal.

Some secular dissidents had also been jailed, often for breaking a new protest law criticised as a threat to free assembly.  As a result some liberal Egyptians, who had approved of Morsi’s removal, had been alienated.

            Sisi is the latest in a line of Egyptian rulers from the military that was only briefly broken during Morsi's year in office.  Critics fear he will become another autocrat who will preserve the army's interests, and quash hopes of democracy and reform aroused by the protests that swept Mubarak from power.  Sisi enjoys the backing of the powerful armed forces and the Interior Ministry, as well many politicians and former Mubarak officials now making a comeback. By his supporters, Sisi is perceived  as a strong figure who can end the turmoil that has convulsed Egypt since the revolution that ended Mubarak's 30 years in power, and protect Egypt from the jihadists that are seeking to overthrow the democratic process and install an Islamist regime.

            And indeed, just prior to the poll, Sisi called on the United States to help fight jihadi terrorism by resuming the US military aid, worth $1.3 billion a year, which was partially frozen after the interim government’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.

"We are fighting a war against terrorism," said Sisi. "The Egyptian army is undertaking major operations in the Sinai so that it is not transformed into a base for terrorism that will threaten its neighbours and make Egypt unstable. If Egypt is unstable then the entire region is unstable. We need American support to fight terrorism."

Sisi said the West must understand that terrorism would reach its doorstep unless it helped eradicate it."The West has to pay attention to what's going on in the world - the map of extremism and its expansion. This map will reach you inevitably."

            He is not wrong. Let the Obama administration put aside its flirtation with the Muslim Brotherhood on the grounds of its illegal overthrow that, somehow, is not quite a military coup. It is to be hoped that, following his equivocal, but indubitably democratic, victory, President al-Sisi succeeds in regaining the confidence of the US.  The fight against Islamist extremism, in Egypt, in Sinai, in Syria, and around the world is unremitting, and must be pursued with vigour.

        If this is indeed President  al-Sisi’s intention, he deserves the support of all who uphold democratic values and deplore the use of indiscriminate terrorism in pursuit of political or religious ends.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 29 May 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 29 May 2014:

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