A funny thing happened on the way to the apotheosis of Egypt’s next president: The adoring crowds stayed home.
The former military leader, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, was supposed to win a landslide victory with strong support from a public that had given every indication of burning with passion for the strongman. El-Sisi urged them to come out en masse to give him a strong mandate, and in the past they had always responded.
There was never any doubt that el-Sisi would win. The only other candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi, served the useful purpose of giving a patina of legitimacy to the process. The only real question was how energetically the public would support the man who has been unofficially governing Egypt since the military, with massive popular backing, toppled President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
It would have served el-Sisi’s cause better if officials had not shown barely disguised panic at the anemic turnout. The election was supposed to take place Monday and Tuesday. The short or nonexistent lines at many voting places led el-Sisi-loyal television anchors
to scold the public
on air for staying home. A member of the Election Commission warned that those who failed to vote might face a fine, and Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb declared Tuesday an official holiday to make it easier for people to vote. That didn’t make a difference, so the commission added a third day
to the vote.
El-Sisi’s coronation appears less enthusiastic than he had hoped, and that will have implications after he at last takes the throne.
There is little question that he enjoys widespread support. But it turns out the support is more wide than deep. That could prove problematic.
By all indications, Egyptians do stand behind the former defense minister. The evidence is not just the Sisi-mania
that gripped the country over the past few months, when men were seen at barber shops shaving the image of the former general on their skulls and pastry shops sold chocolates carved in the profile of the charismatic leader. When Egyptians voted for a new constitution in January—a vote that was also seen as a referendum on el-Sisi—more than 98 percent voted
to approve the document. And in expatriate voting for the current presidential election, el-Sisi has taken well over 90 percent of the ballots.
The reasons for the low turnout are many. Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidate won the last presidential election and are now fiercely persecuted by the state, boycotted the election. And even el-Sisi’s supporters had reason to stay home.
The temperatures in dusty Cairo reached a scorching 102 degrees. That persuaded many people to remain in the shade rather than brave the heat and risk violence, which had been predicted, for the sake of an election whose outcome was all but guaranteed.
Still, the heat did not deter large crowds from taking to the streets in moments of national turmoil over the past few years.
It seems passion for el-Sisi may have cooled a bit.
That must come as troubling news for a man about to tackle enormous challenges under the weight of heavy expectations.
The problem for the soon-to-be president is that some of the national knots he needs to untangle could unleash a new wave of social unrest.
El-Sisi will govern with two paramount objectives, to crush the Muslim Brotherhood and to rebuild the economy. Both of those require a high level of forbearance from the Egyptian public. The assault on the Brotherhood has brought unseemly violence and repression. The rebuilding of the state’s finances may prove even more difficult to tolerate.
Egypt is facing a chronic, massive budget shortfall, fueled more than anything by generous government subsidies
for basic goods. At the top of the list are energy subsidies that are sucking the air out of the national budget. But reducing them could provoke a social explosion.
Tens of billions of dollars in grants from rich Persian Gulf states are not enough to stem the fiscal hemorrhage. The budget deficit is growing, now at 14 percent of GDP, with national debt at 100 percent of GDP. With tourists and investors frightened away from the restive country, hard currency is hard to come by.
The treasury is spending 13 percent of the national budget on energy subsidies, including gasoline, which sells at about 50 cents a gallon. Low energy prices, for air conditioning, lighting homes and cooking, create fast-growing demand as well as shortages. El-Sisi says his plan to tackle the energy crisis is to force Egyptians to use energy-efficient light bulbs, but that will hardly suffice.
At the same time, the president will contend with high levels of poverty and youth unemployment, another explosive combination. More than one-quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, which in Egypt is drawn at just $2 a day. Many more live just above that level of meager subsistence.
El-Sisi’s strategy will likely rely on state intervention in the economy, using Gulf funds to launch massive labor-intensive government projects. That’s an approach that has been tried before with poor results. He has also promised to irrigate the desert and give land to small farmers, no easy task.
All the while, he will face a deeply divided country and an active Islamist insurgency.
Governing in the face of challenges like these, he would benefit greatly from strong popular support.
El-Sisi has proved adept at maneuvering through turbulent times. When the crowds took to Tahrir Square, he deployed the army in a way that made the people love it. He convinced his military comrades to stand back as decades-long dictator Hosni Mubarak was deposed. He convinced the Brotherhood’s Morsi that he could be trusted, to the point that Morsi appointed him defense minister. When Morsi became unpopular, el-Sisi again came out on top, removing Morsi from power.
If anything, el-Sisi has proved he is a master of navigating the cross currents of Egypt’s political waters during the stormiest of times.
And yet, every one of those maneuvers relied on maintaining the support of the Egyptian people. Now that he has all but secured election as president, he will be held responsible like never before. It would have been reassuring to know he had the support of those crowds that chose to stay home during the elections.
Frida Ghitis is an independent commentator on world affairs and a World Politics Review contributing editor. Her weekly WPR column, World Citizen, appears every Thursday. Follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.