Man of Destiny – for a while

Gwynne Dyer

Gwynne Dyer

To the vast surprise of absolutely nobody, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi won the Egyptian presidential election last week.

Moreover, he won it with a majority that would pass for a resounding triumph in most countries. But it is a disarmingly modest majority for an Arab Man of Destiny.

Not for Sisi the implausible margins of victory claimed by Men of Destiny in other Arab countries, like the 96.3% that Egypt’s last dictator, Hosni Mubarak, claimed in his first election 21 years ago, or the spectacular 100% that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein allegedly got in his last election in 2002. No, Sisi just claimed 93.3% of the votes, a number low enough to be true.

Sisi’s real problem is that even with the media cowed and the state behind him, only 46% of eligible Egyptians turned out to vote. He had confidently predicted an 80% turnout.

As an aspiring dictator who overthrew the country’s first democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsi, only one year ago, Sisi needed a big turnout. At least 1 500 protesters have been shot dead, and at least 16 000 political dissidents are in jail. Sisi has shut down a popular revolution and he needed to demonstrate massive public support for what he did.

He didn’t get it. Towards the end of the scheduled two days of the election the people around him panicked. The interim Prime Minister, Ibrahim Mahlab, let slip that barely 30% had voted so far – and the regime abruptly announced a third day of voting. Non-voters were threatened with a large fine.

In the end, Sisi’s officials claimed a 46% turnout, although journalists reported that many polling booths were almost empty on the third day. But let’s assume that 40% of eligible Egyptians did vote. If 93.3% of those people truly did vote for Sisi, he has the support of just over one-third of Egyptians. Other Arab dictators have ruled for decades with no more popular support than that, but it will probably not sustain Sisi through the hard times ahead. Too many Egyptians are struggling just to feed their families.

Sisi talks about how Egyptians “must work, day and night, without rest” to restore the economy after three years of revolutionary chaos, and his budget plan calls for slashing energy subsidies by 22% in a year. Austerity is not going to win him thanks from Egypt’s poor, however, and his political honeymoon will not last long.

What will happen after that can be predicted from the results of Egypt’s only fully free election two years ago. Morsi and another Islamist candidate got 42% of the votes in the first round, while the leftist candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi, got 21%. (Morsi won in the second round, when Sabahi and two others had dropped out.)

We can safely presume few Islamist supporters voted last week. It’s clear that most of Sabahi’s former supporters also abstained: he was the only candidate who dared to run against Sisi, but he only got 3%. Islamists and leftists therefore make up the majority of the 55 to 60% who did not vote for Sisi – and that is good news for him, as the two groups have little in common.

Those who did vote for Sisi were mostly people with no strong ideological convictions who were exhausted by the turmoil of the past three years. They voted for “stability”, and believed Sisi’s promise to deliver it. So long as they go on believing that, a deeply divided opposition poses little threat to him. But most of the people who voted for Sisi thought that by “stability”, he meant an improvement in living standards, and it’s unlikely he can deliver that. When they lose faith in Sisi, the opposition will achieve critical mass. The Egyptian revolution is not over yet.

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