The man who led Egypt’s military coup last year, General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, won the country’s presidential election with well more than 90 percent of the vote. He has very little to celebrate.
This was less an election than a coronation, given el-Sissi threw his only serious potential challengers in jail, and the winner was never in doubt. The true test of the new president’s mandate was always going to be how many voters showed up to endorse his ascent to the throne — and on that measure he lost.
At less than 50 percent, turnout was significantly lower than it was for the 2012 presidential vote, won by Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, and well below el-Sissi’s own projection of about 75 percent. Even the low official number is probably inflated. Polling stations were so empty Egypt’s election commission made a last-minute decision to extend voting by a third day and then, in the absence of monitors, the turnout figure suddenly leapt.
It’s not surprising so many Egyptians would find no reason to vote. Apart from the lack of suspense in the race, they want their basic security and economic needs addressed, and nothing el-Sissi has done since seizing power made them confident he will deliver. In the past three years, two Egyptian presidents have fallen after popular protests (the coup against Morsi followed a wave of demonstrations), and this week’s ambivalent result shows the same can happen again.
As Egypt’s de facto ruler, el-Sissi has sought to obliterate the Brotherhood by force, despite its large mainstream following. (A recent poll found 38 percent of Egyptians still support the Islamist organization.) Since last year’s coup, at least 20,000 people have been jailed and hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and supporters have been sentenced to death in mass show trials. Terrorist attacks on security forces by radical Islamists inevitably followed.
El-Sissi also curtailed basic freedoms for all Egyptians, and yet has offered few specifics on how he intends to lead Egypt as an elected president. Although his platform offered a few ideas to improve the economy, there were no specifics on how such plans would be accomplished ...
To become an effective leader, el-Sissi needs to lay out a clear economic vision. This will have to involve some painful measures, including a reduction in unaffordable energy subsidies, tax reform and a strategy to shrink the country’s budget deficit. In order to tolerate the pain such reforms will bring, Egyptians must trust the president will deliver jobs, and not dismiss a third of the population as “terrorists.”
This is a moment for el-Sissi to change course. To demonstrate he plans to serve all Egyptians, he should reopen the country’s political space to all nonviolent parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood; dismantle those parts of the old-regime bureaucracy that hinder investment and growth; and create the kind of economic and legal climate in which companies will invest and create jobs.
Egypt might not yet be ready for a functioning democracy. But el-Sissi should not expect Egyptians to go back to passively accepting the kind of visionless authoritarian rule they tolerated before the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. He should focus less on destroying his political opponents and more on fixing the economy.
— Bloomberg View