Installing Egypt’s new pharaoh

June 10, 2014

Eric Ruder reports on the outcome and the aftermath of Egypt's recent elections.

EVERY DICTATOR craves the legitimacy of a "democratic mandate," and the elections in Egypt in late May were designed to produce just such an outcome for military strongman Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi.

The numbers alone should raise doubts: Election officials claimed that Sisi received 96 percent of the vote, while his only opponent, Hamdeen Sabahi, got less than 4 percent. But this only tells part of the story. Voter turnout was a low 46.8 percent, according to the official tally. Critics of the regime suggest it might actually have been even less than that, but in any case, the government had to take extraordinary measures to reach even that figure.

On Monday, May 26, the first day of the scheduled two-day election, election observers and the Sabahi campaign both reported turnout around 10 percent at many polling stations across the country. Alarmed by this, the government declared the following day a holiday for public workers to encourage more people to vote--and it also threatened to fine nonvoters half of the monthly minimum wage. Apparently still anxious about the lack of interest in anointing a new pharaoh, the government then announced that it would add a third day of voting.

Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi
Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi

Mainstream media figures unleashed tirades against their fellow Egyptians for their lack of civic engagement, musing on air that those who don't vote "should be shot."

Wael Gamal, the former managing editor of Al Shorouk newspaper, was shocked to find the voting station empty when he went to cast his vote. "It took me just a minute to vote--for Sabahi--on the second day, Tuesday," said Gamal. "I thought this would be the busiest moment [because] it was a day off, it was going to be hot later, but in Nasr City, there was only one other person in the polling station."

BUT EVEN before the results were in, it was a foregone conclusion that Sisi would continue to rule from within the Egyptian tradition of military strongmen-turned-paternalistic overlords, the same mold that shaped the regimes of U.S.-backed dictators Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak.

Western press accounts invariably portray Sisi as "wildly popular," and pre-election polls showing that no other candidate (except for "undecided") could seriously contend with him suggest that he does have support.

But Sisi only maintains his reputation as a benevolent ruler through media manipulation and the fact that he has not been seen to be holding the reins of government power himself. Even Sisi appreciates that when it comes time to implement his political and economic program, all of this will change.

In his speeches, Sisi blends together calls for a strong Egypt with his professed admiration for the "common man," all in language devoid of any specifics that might constrain Sisi's future policy options. But away from the cameras that burnish his image as a gentle father to the nation lurks a more ominous figure.

More Egyptians might be familiar with this other Sisi if journalists reporting on leaked recordings of Sisi's off-the-record comments to a reporter didn't find themselves subject to government prosecution. Those recordings, which became public several months ago, leave little doubt about what Sisi has in store for "his children," the citizens of Egypt. "The people think that I'm a soft guy," he said in one of the recordings. "It's not like that...Sisi is torture and suffering."

On another recording, Sisi asks his Egyptian subjects a series of rhetorical questions that connect individual self-sacrifice with the greater good of the nation. "You want to be a first-class nation?" he asks. "Will you bear it if I make you walk on your own feet? When I wake you up at 5 in the morning every day? Will you bear cutting back on food, cutting back on air conditioners?"

Though the form may be rhetorical, the substance is very real. Egypt subsidizes energy costs in order to keep electricity affordable, and any changes to the policy of cheap energy could provoke a backlash. The politically delicate task of imposing austerity to balance budgets without choking off economic growth or sparking popular resistance bedevils the Egyptian regime, just like elsewhere around the world.

The difference is that the Egyptian people have the recent experience of actually overthrowing a hated dictator, and although the revolutionary hope following the 2011 uprising that ousted Mubarak has been all but extinguished, cuts that provoke sufficient anger to return people to the streets could be a very risky proposition.

In the last 10 months alone, Egypt's treasury has already spent more than $20 billion in financial aid sent by Gulf kingdoms, and Sisi is counting on billions more in the coming years. Yet Sisi knows that he won't be able to count on the generosity of his patrons among the Gulf monarchies forever.

IN THE short term, it's safe to assume that Sisi will continue to use all the means at his disposal to crush dissent--whether that means using the courts to punish revolutionary activists (in the name of the revolution, of course) or using elections to manufacture consent. But when it comes time for Sisi to try to govern, the neoliberal playbook he is working from will inevitably provoke a response.

In the words of Wael Gamal:

A dictatorship needs real support from all sectors of society. Yes, Sisi has support now, but it is conditional. The expectations of people are different from each other. Whatever he says, part of the alliance--which elected him--will be annoyed. If Sisi talks about revitalizing the state's role in the economy, the businessmen who support him will be angry and vice-versa...

The economic program of Sisi is in the budget plan. It calls for slashing 22 percent of energy subsidies in one year. And they are shrinking public investments...This is austerity, the kind that the U.S. and the International Monetary Fund wants. This is contradictory to public support.

Sisi is doing everything required of him to count the U.S. among his supporters, according to Gamal. "Everybody knew from the beginning that the conditions with the United States were clear: his policy toward the border with Gaza, his policy toward Israel and his economic agenda. As for his policy towards the Muslim Brotherhood, he gets a "tick" for that as well," said Gamal.

But after the Sisi honeymoon wears off and the time to implement his program arrives, the unrealized expectations of the mass of the population that still yearns for the Egyptian Revolution's promise of "bread, freedom, human dignity and social justice" will be exposed. According to Gamal:

They think things will get better very soon, but if Sisi fails to deliver, they will be in the streets. This is what happened to Morsi. In his first 10 months, there were 7,000 strikes and protests in the streets...Sisi wants a stable role for the state, but the problem is that he is depending on some of Mubarak's interest networks. They have already invested in him. Now he must pay. They want returns on their investment, so he can't put taxes on the stock market. But if he wants to spend on education, he must raise extra taxes.

The real question is how long it will take for these contradictions to start haunting Egypt's new pharaoh.

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