In a crushing victory, the former defence minister becomes Egypt’s new president. Now for the hard part.
To almost no one’s surprise, Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was yesterday officially pronounced as Egypt’s president, the seventh overall and the head of state with arguably the biggest challenge of them all.
It was a crushing victory for Al-Sisi who before he takes on a crippled economy, a low-level insurgency and a bitterly divided nation should at least bask for a while in the glory of the numbers. He won 96.91 percent of the vote, as opposed to 3.09 percent for his sole opponent, the labour activist Hamdeen Sabahi. More than 25 million — more than 46 percent — of Egypt’s 53 million eligible voters participated, not as good as the turnout in the 2012 election which was about 52 percent, but not too far off, and still a respectable turnout comparable with previous polls, especially before the 2011 revolution. Politicians, officials and the media consistently emphasised the importance of a high turnout for Al-Sisi’s future mandate. And he got it.
Al-Sisi’s real battle, it appeared, was not against Sabahi but the man who was not running against him, Mohamed Morsi. But he won that, too.
The most telling statistic was the 23.9 million ballots Al-Sisi collected – dwarfing the 13 million who voted in 2012 for Morsi, the man Al-Sisi helped oust from the presidency last summer. This year’s vote and that of two years ago necessitate comparisons. The 2012 election was highly volatile and much more emotionally charged. The contenders two years ago were hugely polarising figures. For the first time an Islamist was running and not for the first time was a candidate representing the establishment. There were risks voting for a man from the secretive and untried Brotherhood, as it was dicey electing a man from the Mubarak regime which had a year earlier been toppled in a revolution. The two mirrored the country which was split right down the middle, forcing many people not to vote at all. But those who did felt they had to vote; they were not ambivalent. The feeling was more of antipathy, a sentiment which helps goad people when they are determining their fate.
The choice in this year’s election was much less controversial, as both Al-Sisi and Sabahi did not threaten the unity of Egyptians nor did they divide the country. What they did provide were two much more acceptable faces than in 2012 — but obviously one was much more attractive than the other. The last-minute holiday given to the country to facilitate voting, the extension of the vote to a third day, and a LE500 fine for non-voters were not the reasons for the decent turnout. Weeks before, it was concluded that millions would go to the polls because this time they knew exactly who they wanted and what they wanted from him. There were no two ways about it; they demonstrably placed their trust in a man who they hope can stabilise Egypt after three years of post-revolutionary unrest.
Al-Sisi will need all their blessings. Egypt is a troubled country with its most fundamental problem being the weakness of the economy. It has a big, young, growing population, and not nearly enough jobs to go round. About 40 percent of the population lives in poverty, and healthcare and education don’t meet the needs of the people. Added to that are Egypt’s security problems. There have been a steady stream of attacks from Islamist extremists, especially in Sinai and on police in the major cities.
The six previous leaders of Egypt faced problems different in nature. During his short stay, the country’s first president Mohamed Naguib was untested. Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s biggest concern was ridding the country of the vestiges of British colonial rule. Anwar Al-Sadat had to pick up the country from the devastating 1967 war. Hosni Mubarak and Morsi had to deal with the people’s rejection of them, both of which ended in revolutions which toppled them. As interim president, Adli Mansour’s job was to keep the ship afloat during a difficult transition. As for Al-Sisi, his main worry will be serious structural problems which have no quick fixes.
Still, Al-Sisi may not have to hit the ground running. The World Cup will start in just over a week and the tournament will as always spellbind football crazy Egypt. Two weeks later will start Ramadan whose month of fasting and religiousness should supersede politics. August will be reserved for summer holidays. Add them up and in effect Al-Sisi gets close to a three-month grace period. That would be around the 100-day honeymoon that presidents in the West enjoy before accountability starts.
This was the second election since the 2011 uprising that ended Mubarak’s 30 years in power and the most lopsided. The scale of Al-Sisi’s victory was never in doubt. He is viewed by millions as the warrior against terrorism and the only person able to tackle Egypt’s economic problems, high unemployment, inflation and instability. It’s a huge undertaking and a responsibility brought on more so by the public and the media who have been whipping up adulation for Al-Sisi over the past year, depicting him as the saviour from Muslim Brotherhood rule. The immense problems facing Al-Sisi would have been tough enough but the tremendous anticipation that he can solve them simply adds one more brick to the ton he now carries on his shoulders.
Alaa Abdel-Ghani is an affiliate professor, Faculty of Journalism, American University in Cairo.