Former commander-in-chief of the armed forces of Egypt, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has secured a crushing victory in the presidential elections held between May 26 to 28, almost a year after Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, was deposed and imprisoned after mass protests. In his presidential bid, Mr Sisi was confronted with a single adversary, the left wing candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi whose sole purpose, it seems, was to lend credence to the perception of due democratic process. The result, of course, was a foregone conclusion even before the polling started. The real opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), was banned from taking part in the election and its supporters opted for a boycott. The MB made several mistakes when it assumed power in June 2012. First of all it tried to impose its own ideology over the entire country. Second, it was unable to connect with wider swathes of the population. Finally, it became hungry for power.
The MB failed to run the country owing to its lack of experience and the non-cooperation of state institutions deeply imbedded in the Mubarak regime. The presidency, however, will not prove to be a bed of roses for the former general who faced his first setback in the form of low voter turnout that marred his otherwise smooth ascendancy to the highest office in Egypt. The absence of long queues of jubilant voters outside polling stations was first blamed on a procedure that requires every Egyptian who is away from his original constituency to pre-register his vote. Then, a sudden heat wave was held responsible. There were desperate attempts by the government and the media to increase turnout. These included extending the polls for another day, declaring a national holiday, and finally, threatening non-voters with a hefty fine. Despite all these measures, the estimated voter turnout was 46 percent as compared to 52 percent in the last presidential election won by Morsi. Mr Sisi was counting on more than 40 million votes that would not only award him a sweeping victory, but also lend credibility to his crackdown on the MB as well as other dissidents. The low voter turnout and the resultant question mark on the entire electoral process is only one of Mr Sisi’s problems. There are several more to come.
The majority of Egyptians who voted for Mr Sisi expect him to bring them immediate economic relief. The economy is in a shambles and the country’s coffers are empty. The budget deficit and unemployment stand at 14 and 13 percent respectively. Mr Sisi will be required to address these issues as soon as he assumes office. But how exactly will he manage a ruined economy? Mr Sisi has made rather vague comments about the need to levy more taxes. There was no clarification who will be subjected to these extra taxes since most Egyptians are already living either on, or below the poverty line. Since the uprising in 2011, the budget deficit has almost doubled rendering the current government unable to pay for fuel that is required for running power plants. Egypt’s economy needs serious restoration measures including cutting government spending and boosting revenue. But any attempts at levying more taxes, reforming the swollen public sector or the current subsidy system will result in the same kind of social unrest and protests that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak, and after him, Mohammad Morsi. Mr Sisi did not make it clear how he will turn the economy around. But he promised ordinary Egyptians that their living conditions will improve while simultaneously warning them they should be prepared for a long period of strict austerity. There is a rift in Egyptian society owing to the harsh crackdown on the MB and other dissident groups. Mr Sisi will have to deal with the unrest caused by this.
When Mohammad Morsi became president in 2012, he was constantly undermined by his opponents. Mr Sisi will likely have to face the same challenges from supporters of Morsi if he fails to bridge the gaps in society. There were elements in the Mubarak regime that never allowed radical economic reforms to take place. These elements are still present in the new regime. Then there are big businesses that reap the benefits of subsidised energy. Mr Sisi will have to deal with them too. Around 25 percent of Egypt’s state budget is used for providing subsidised fuel and flour to the public. This subsidy system must be reformed in order to bring the economy back on track. However, this is an explosive issue that no government dared touch in the past because it has the potential to shake the entire country. The widespread panic caused by low turnout during the elections may have been a sign that Mr Sisi and his supporters are beginning to understand the scope of the dilemma that they will be facing in the days to come. There is no doubt that the MB wasted a great opportunity for setting examples of political inclusion and good governance. It failed because it could not compromise. The former general also seems to be treading the same path. He does not seem to be willing to compromise either. Why should there be any doubt that he will not meet a different fate from that of his predecessors?
After all, the paths leading to Tahrir Square are still open.
The writer is an investment banker and freelance columnist