Egypt goes to the polls today and tomorrow to elect a new president. But no one is in doubt who the winner will be: Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the charismatic and popular army general and former defence minister. He was the one who delivered the coup de grace to the short and controversial rule of Mohamed Morsi in the wake of mass protests demanding he declare early election or step down in June last year.
There is of course none of the excitement and suspense of previous elections, but there a considerable mixture of hope and fear, depending on who you speak to.
Let there be no doubt that Sisi is a conservative, authoritarian nationalist. But in this he is very much in tune with many Egyptians. Perhaps that is precisely why he’s so popular.
However, authoritarianism has not succeeded in remedying Egypt’s many ills in the past, and there is no reason to believe it will do so now. Transparency, accountability and rule of law is the answer. Therein lies Sisi’s greatest challenge: to learn from the mistakes that have plunged Egypt in successive crises and made it fall so far short of its potential and promise.
Sisi’s supporters believe that, after three years of turmoil and near economic collapse, he is the saviour they have been waiting for: a strong man who can restore stability, jumpstart the economy and put Egypt back on track for greater things. He has spoken of ambitious plans to break out of the narrow Nile valley (which makes up only 6% of the country’s total area and where the vast majority live), beginning to develop the vast expanse of its uninhabited deserts.
Those who fear him have focused on his ties with the old establishment, (he was, after all, the head of military intelligence during the Mubarak regime) and his failure hitherto to show in deeds (and not just in words) his commitment to the goals of the January 25 2011 revolution – freedom of assembly being among the most important.
In his much-publicised television interviews, Sisi has also displayed a frightening lack of understanding of how the media in an open society operates, voicing typically authoritarian (and naive) notions that all Egyptians should forget their differences for the greater good. Nice words, but it has never worked, and there is no reason to believe it ever will.
Neither will resurrecting the old police state work. Sisi himself has said that there will be no return to the past, which should, at least in theory, be reassuring for the pro-democracy camp. But while there is still broad support among secularists for his stance on the Muslim Brotherhood (he has made it clear that there will be no reconciliation with the organisation during his rule), extending the circle of the crackdown to suppress dissent among other political groups will undermine his rule from the very beginning.
Critically, Sisi – just like many authoritarians from his generation and the establishment at large – still cannot understand (let alone live with) the idea that democracy is noisy, messy and often irreverent. Learning to live with that could be the key to his success. Failure would be bad news for him and for Egypt.
Provided he listens, accepts public criticism and learns from past mistakes, Sisi could bring the stability Egypt needs. If he doesn’t, there could be more trouble ahead, perhaps far worse than anything we have seen since the overthrow of Mubarak in 2011.
Reining in hardliners within the security establishment who are pursuing a vendetta against the activists who made the 2011 revolution possible may not be his only challenge. The “Mubarakistas” (who now support him) may turn out to be one of his main stumbling blocks, and especially the network of crony capitalists and corrupt bureaucrats who thrived in the Mubarak years. Because they stand to lose both influence and privilege, they could thwart his plans for the state and the army to play a greater role in managing the economy.
(Published in the Guardian 26 of May http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/26/egypt-presidential-favourite-sisi-stability)