Gwynne Dyer: Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is Egypt’s man of destiny—for a while
To the vast surprise of absolutely nobody, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi won the Egyptian presidential election last week.
Moreover, he won it with a majority that would pass for a resounding triumph in most countries. But it is a disarmingly modest majority for an Arab Man of Destiny.
Not for Sisi the implausible margins of victory claimed by Men of Destiny in other Arab countries, like the 96.3 percent that Egypt’s last dictator, Hosni Mubarak, claimed in his first election 21 years ago, or the spectacular 100 percent that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein allegedly got in his last election in 2002. No, Sisi just claimed 93.3 percent of the votes, a number low enough that it might actually be true.
Sisi’s real problem is that even with the media cowed and the full resources of the state behind him, only 46 percent of eligible Egyptians turned out to vote. He had confidently predicted an 80 percent turnout.
As an aspiring dictator who overthrew the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, only one year ago, Sisi needed a big turnout.
At least 1,500 protesters have been shot dead in the streets, and a minimum of 16,000 political dissidents are in jail. Sisi has shut down a popular revolution and he needed to demonstrate massive public support for what he did.
He didn’t get it. Towards the end of the scheduled two days of the election, the people around him panicked. The interim prime minister, Ibrahim Mahlab, let slip that barely 30 percent had voted so far—and the regime abruptly announced that there would be a third day of voting.
An unscheduled public holiday was declared, and non-voters were threatened with a large fine.
In the end, Sisi’s officials claimed a 46 percent turnout, although journalists reported that many polling booths were almost empty on the third day. But let’s be generous and assume that 40 percent of eligible Egyptians did vote.
If 93.3 percent of those people truly did vote for Sisi, then he has the support of just over one-third of Egyptians. Other Arab dictators have ruled their countries for decades with no more popular support than that, but it will probably not sustain Sisi through the hard times that are coming. Too many Egyptians are struggling just to feed their families.
Egypt’s economy is running on fumes, and there would not even be enough bread for people to eat—Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat—if Sisi were not getting massive infusions of aid from Saudi Arabia and most of the smaller Gulf states, which are very happy that he is killing off the Egyptian revolution.
But even the great wealth of the Gulf kingdoms cannot win Sisi more than a breathing space: all of them together have only about a third of Egypt’s population. And there is no good reason to believe that the Egyptian army, which is now effectively in charge, has the skill to resolve the country’s grave economic problems. Indeed, its highest priority will be to protect its own massive business empire.
Sisi talks about how Egyptians “must work, day and night, without rest” to restore the economy after three years of revolutionary chaos, and his budget plan calls for slashing energy subsidies by 22 percent in one year.
Austerity is not going to win him any thanks from Egypt’s poor, however, and his political honeymoon will not last long.
What will happen after that can be predicted from the results of Egypt’s only fully free election two years ago. Mohamed Morsi and another Islamist candidate got a total of 42 percent of the votes in the first round of that election, while the leftist candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi, got 21 percent. (Morsi won in the second round, when Sabahi and two other candidates had dropped out.)
We can safely presume that few Islamist supporters voted at all in last week’s election. It’s clear that most of Sabahi’s former supporters also abstained: he was the only candidate who dared to run against Sisi, but he only got three percent this time. Islamists and leftists therefore make up the majority of the 55 to 60 percent who did not vote for Sisi this time—and that is good news for him, because the two groups have very little in common.
Those who did vote for Sisi were mostly people with no strong ideological convictions who were simply exhausted by the turmoil of the past three years. They voted for “stability”, and believed Sisi’s promise that he could deliver it. So long as they go on believing that, a deeply divided opposition poses little threat to him.
But most of the people who voted for Sisi thought that when he said “stability”, he really meant an improvement in their living standards, and it’s most unlikely that he can deliver that. When they lose faith in Sisi, the opposition will achieve critical mass, and it probably won’t take more than two years.
The Egyptian revolution is not over yet.