Can Egypt turn the corner with presidential polls?

Egypt's former army chief and leading presidential candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (centre) arriving at a polling station in Heliopolis, Cairo, yesterday to vote.
Egypt's former army chief and leading presidential candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (centre) arriving at a polling station in Heliopolis, Cairo, yesterday to vote.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

EGYPTIANS are electing a new president. The polls - over two days ending today - are being held in the wake of the tumultuous events following the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak in the uprising of 2010-2011 when the masses demanded an end to authoritarianism.

In this election, however, they are expected to vote a general into power. The front runner, retired field marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, masterminded last July's coupthat overthrew the democratically elected government headed by Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Mursi.

Does the election signify the return of authoritarianism, or is it simply another grim milestone on the road to yet another uprising? The one thing it is unlikely to lead to is stable, democratic government.

While the July coup had broad popular support from Egyptians fed up with the heavy-handed incompetence of the Mursi government, it did not usher in a period of stability. On the contrary, Egypt was plunged into unprecedented violence. Between July last year and early this year, some 3,000 Egyptians were killed and 17,000 wounded in political violence.

Because Mr Sisi's supporters almost completely dominate the Egyptian media, the election campaign has hardly provided the lone opposition presidential candidate with a level playing field. The Muslim Brotherhood, now underground but with its grassroots organisation still intact, has called for a boycott.

The Carter Centre (headed by the former US president) has also declined to send election observers. It believes that "Egypt's political transition has stalled and stands on the precipice of total reversal".

Once elected, the tasks Mr Sisi faces are immense. The economy is in a free-fall. Unemployment is over 13 per cent and three quarters of the unemployed are between 15 and 29 years old. The World Bank has estimated that 25.5 per cent of Egyptians fall below the poverty line, up from 16.7 per cent in 2000. GDP growth in 2012 was only 2 per cent, compared with 7 per cent in 2000.

Mr Sisi has some powerful supporters both at home and abroad. His domestic supporters include bureaucrats in the civil service, the security organisations and the military. The feloul, remnants of the old regime that benefited from the state's patronage under Mubarak, have also rallied to him, as have many ordinary Egyptians yearning for stability.

Since the July coup, the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have pledged US$17 billion (S$21 billion) to prop up the economy. The Obama administration, despite issuing a verbal reprimand over the repression, seems willing to continue its longstanding military and security assistance programmes.

Clearly, Mr Sisi will have a "honeymoon" period after taking office. But for how long? The Muslim Brotherhood leadership has been decapitated, but this vast organisation, with its networks throughout Egypt, will not "disappear" as Mr Sisi has declared. Social media has contributed to a political awakening in Egyptian society. And it is still not clear whether the new president has a programme, or even an understanding, of Egypt's huge social and economic problems.

All this suggests that the reckoning may come sooner than many think. A new Pew Research Centre poll finds that Egyptians are now as dissatisfied about the direction of their country as they were just before the uprising began at the end of 2010. It also shows that only a bare majority (54 per cent) were in favour of the ouster of Mursi, or had a favourable opinion of Mr Sisi himself.

Another issue is whether Mr Sisi's support from the liberal side of the political spectrum will be maintained. After all, the military's crackdown has not just been confined to the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition, the largesse that has been flowing from the Gulf to keep the Egyptian economy afloat may not last indefinitely. Sooner or later Gulf rulers will want to see results. And important members of Congress are threatening to put US aid on hold.

Every electoral contest since 2010 has proven that Egypt is a country where electoral outcomes, whether democratic or authoritarian, are subject to the possibility of reversal. As we consider how the next president will have to manage the wide range of Egypt's socioeconomic grievances, there is no reason to believe that Mr Sisi's impending electoral victory will be immune to that.

If instability continues, triggering yet another popular upheaval, the repercussions will be felt regionally and globally.


The writer is director of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.