Interpreting the Egyptian mandate

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Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s election confirms that Egypt has a military-guided democracy. But this should not make us jump to the conclusion that it is not democracy at all

Egypt has a new President. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was the country’s Army chief and Defence Minister, has won a landslide victory in the presidential election held in the last week of May. He defeated his opponent, Hamdeen Sabahi, by securing 96.91 per cent of the votes polled.
Mr. Sisi, 59, is Egypt’s sixth President (not counting interim heads of state), and the fifth with a military background, since the country became a republic in 1953 following the removal of King Farouk by the Army. The only non-military person ever to become Egypt’s elected President was Mohamed Morsi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and now in jail. Mr. Sisi’s election marks both a closure and, perhaps, partial continuation of the strong socio-political turbulence that has gripped Egypt for over three years. It began with a popular uprising in 2011, known as the January 25 Revolution, which brought Mr. Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year-long dictatorial reign to an end. Mr. Morsi was elected in June 2012, only to be unseated from power in July 2013, when he became the target of an even bigger, popular uprising.
 A majority of Egyptians are against religious extremism and prefer peace, safety and stability. 
The yearning for a strong leader
Mr. Sisi’s victory was a foregone conclusion going by the immense popularity he gained after he, as Army chief, backed the huge countrywide protests against Mr. Morsi. He earned the reputation of being a strong leader when he served Mr. Morsi an ultimatum to resign within 48 hours. When the Muslim Brotherhood protested angrily by staging indefinite sit-ins in Cairo squares, he ordered a crackdown by security forces in which nearly a 1,000 of Mr. Morsi’s supporters were killed. He was the de-facto ruler of Egypt even during the reign of the post-Morsi interim government, when a new Constitution was adopted. This is when the Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed and declared a “terrorist organisation.” In the run-up to the presidential poll, Mr. Sisi went to the extent of saying that the Muslim Brotherhood would cease to exist during his presidency.
His election confirms that Egypt has a military-guided democracy. But this should not make us jump to the conclusion that it is not democracy at all, simply military rule in a civilian garb. This is unlikely to happen. The tumultuous events since the overthrow of the hated Mubarak regime have shown that there has been a democratic awakening and activism on a scale unprecedented in Egypt’s history or even Arab history. This mass awakening cannot be suppressed. After his victory, Mr. Sisi has sought to quash apprehensions on this score by saying, “We know that some people fear a return to the past, but this will not happen, there is no going back and we will move forward.”
Many Indians, who cheered the “Arab Spring” in 2011, in this most populous Arab country, are naturally baffled by the subsequent developments. Why did the largely non-violent anti-Mubarak and pro-democracy mass protests at Cairo’s Tahrir Square herald an era of instability? Why did Egyptians return to the same Tahrir Square in even larger numbers to demand Mr. Morsi’s ouster? Why did an Islamist organisation like the Muslim Brotherhood become unpopular so quickly in a country with a 90 per cent Muslim population? Why did Egyptians begin to lionise an ex-Army chief who was an almost unknown figure even two years ago?
Challenges behind the victory

It is to find answers to some of these questions that I spent a week in Egypt in February this year. What I found is that a majority of Egyptians are against religious extremism (hence their anger against Mr. Morsi’s majoritarian and coercive regime) and prefer peace, safety and stability (hence their faith in a military leader who is tough on Islamism but is not against Islam).
Indeed, what endeared Mr. Sisi to most Egyptians, especially women, is the combination of the hard and the soft in his personality. While he responded to their deep yearning for a strong leader capable of bringing order to a nation convulsed by three years of violence and chaos that has wrecked the national economy on the one hand, he came across as a pious Muslim who could touch the hearts of the common people with his soft-spoken and compassionate talk on the other. Moreover, in a country that regards the Army as the supreme and most reliable patriotic institution, many people saw him as a committed defender of Egyptian nationalism, as against the Brotherhood’s call for Islamic internationalism that marginalises Coptic Christians (who account for 10 per cent of the country’s 85 million population) and rejects the glory of Egypt’s pre-Islamic Pharaonic past.
However, Mr. Sisi’s impressive victory margin cannot hide the harsh challenges that are bound to test his presidency. The mandate he has received is somewhat weakened already by the less-than-expected turnout of voters. This was partly due to the fact that since his victory was a certainty, many voters believed that their individual vote would make no material difference to the poll outcome. In an extraordinary move, the Election Commission, finding the turnout to be low in the scheduled two-day poll, extended polling to the third day. Even then, Mr. Sisi could garner only about 24 million votes, out of 54 million registered voters, which fell short of the target of 40 million votes that he had publicly sought.
The low turnout has again shown that the Egypt that Mr. Sisi will lead remains a divided nation. This has emboldened his critics — the Muslim Brotherhood, which had called for a boycott of the poll, and also many non-Islamist democratic forces that were in the vanguard of the anti-Mubarak uprising and who now fear a return to authoritarian Army rule under Mr. Sisi.
Therefore, the main challenge before Mr. Sisi is to forge what he himself has called a “real national partnership that satisfies all Egyptians.” He has made the assurance that “our arms are open for everyone to build the nation.” No less onerous is the other challenge of quickly reviving the national economy, so that the new President can, in his own words, “calm the young.” They are restive because Egypt is reeling under a 13 per cent unemployment rate, with 800,000 fresh arrivals to the job market each year. He has to fix soaring inflation and a crippling budget deficit, almost 14 per cent of GDP. Tourism, a major revenue earner and job-generator, is down to a fourth of its peak levels. Mr. Sisi has repeatedly stated that tourists will not return to Egypt, and investments cannot be speeded up for economic growth unless protests stop and the country is perceived by the rest of the world to be safe and stable. The government has therefore banned public protests. It has also arrested a large number of both liberal-democratic and pro-Brotherhood activists. This has earned Mr. Sisi many critics, at home as well as abroad. However, the new President obviously thinks that in the current situation in Egypt, stability and development must take precedence over certain democratic freedoms.
Rebooting India-Egypt ties

Many Egyptians believe that the restoration of hope is the need of the hour. They despair that Egypt, despite its past glory, is a poor member of the Arab world today. In his book The Real Story of the Egyptian Revolution, Hassan Elsawaf writes: “The contrast between today’s Egypt and what the country used to be is quite evident in a photograph, taken after World War II, that shows King Farouk seated in a comfortable armchair, dignified and self-assured. Surrounding him is a huge group of the offspring of Saudi and other Gulf rulers, all standing in deference to the Egyptian monarch. They all represent the degree of veneration Egypt enjoyed among Gulf Arabs at the time, having saved them from impending famine with generous donations.”
Today, Egypt has to depend on generous aid, worth billions of dollars, from Saudi Arabia and several Gulf states. Mr. Sisi has said that he wants to change this reality. He can succeed if he strongly and simultaneously pursues five guiding principles — of good governance, development, democratic institution-building, containment of religious extremism, and national reconciliation. As the head of a country with which India has always enjoyed friendly relations, we Indians should wish him and the Egyptian people well.
It is a pity that India-Egypt relations have remained at a very low level. Egyptians have enormous goodwill for India and still remember the warmth of the Nehru-Nasser friendship. In contrast, Egypt — and much of the rest of the Arab world, too — has become distant in the national consciousness of Indians. This must change. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a good opportunity to befriend President Sisi now that Egypt has begun increasingly to look for economic and political ties with the non-western countries.
This will also help the Modi government reach out to the larger Muslim world since the march of moderate Islam — of the kind Egypt espouses — will greatly benefit India, our South Asian neighbourhood and the rest of the world.
(Sudheendra Kulkarni was an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee between 1998 and 2014.)
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