Egypt’s new pharaoh

Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, the former head of Egypt’s Army, won a landslide victory in presidential elections held last month. The retired field marshal was sworn in Sunday as Egypt’s new president. His job now is to forge unity in a country deeply divided, and restore trust in a political system that has demonstrated extraordinary flaws. Only then will he be able to get the Egyptian economy back on track, an absolute precondition to stability in one of the Middle East’s most important countries.

After mass demonstrations erupted throughout Egypt last summer, al-Sisi, minister of defense, along with other military leaders gave President Mohammed Morsi an ultimatum, insisting that he accede to the demands of the protesters or step down. Morsi, convinced that he had a popular mandate and that the protests, along with the problems his administration faced, were the product of holdovers from the Mubarak regime he replaced, refused. A military council stepped in last July, deposing the president and charging him with disregarding the wishes of the people, acting against the constitution and setting up a shadow administration that was to be dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Mass arrests of government officials, as well as Muslim Brotherhood leaders and activists, followed.

At first, al-Sisi insisted that he had no intention of running for president. Soon, however, he quit the military and began his campaign. For many Egyptians, al-Sisi is a new pharaoh, a strong man who will restore Egypt to its rightful place as the leading nation in the Middle East, as well as a bulwark against the encroachment of Islamic values on the secular state.

That staunch support is part of the reason why the retired general won 96.9 percent of the vote in last month’s ballot; the only challenger, Hamdeen Sabahi, a prominent leftwing politician, claimed just 3.1 percent. Another important part of his margin of victory was the decision of the Muslim Brotherhood to boycott the election. Just 47.4 percent of eligible voters went to the polls, even though the government added a third day of voting to pump up the numbers — officially, because hot weather may have prevented some from voting. Many democratic activists who were instrumental in the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 also turned their backs on the election, arguing that the military crackdown and the suspension of civil rights made the process a farce. It is reckoned that as many as 1 million people voided ballots in protest.

Outside observers challenged the poll. European Union observers conceded the vote occurred “in an environment falling short of constitutional principles.” More troubling still was the fact that there were more voided ballots than votes for challenger Hamdeen. And, in a final insult for supporters of democracy in Egypt and the Middle East, al-Sisi won by a larger margin than Bashar Assad, who was re-elected president of Syria earlier this month with “just” 88.7 percent of the vote.

Al-Sisi’s sweeping victory does not confer legitimacy upon his presidency. While it is estimated that up to 20,000 people have been detained since the coup — Morsi among them, now facing charges of inciting deadly violence — and more than 1,000 protestors killed, the Muslim Brotherhood remains a powerful force in Egypt. Hundreds of security personnel have been killed by Islamist militants since Morsi was deposed.

While attitudes have hardened between rival forces against each other and the ideological cleavages in Egyptian society have widened, the new president must find a way to coopt and include the Islamists in the new government. Egypt can remain a secular state while ensuring that there is respect for and protection of Islamic sensibilities and rights. One important step would be some form of amnesty or clemency for the former leadership, Morsi included.

Ultimately, however, al-Sisi will be judged by the success of his economic agenda. More than a quarter of Egyptians live below the poverty line. Three years of near constant revolution have taken a severe toll on the economy. With the number of tourists plummeting, the growth rate has dropped to a third of that during the Mubarak years, unemployment tops 13 percent, and inflation is on the rise. Fuel, power and water shortages are common. During the campaign, al-Sisi produced an ambitious economic program, promising to build 26 new tourist resorts, eight new airports, and 22 industrial cities, while cultivating 1.6 million hectares of desert. That program is estimated to cost over $140 billion, two-thirds of the country’s entire wealth.

Perhaps the most daunting challenge, however, will be tackling the entrenched interests that ultimately undermined the Mubarak regime. Most experts believe that corruption and lack of transparency are Egypt’s biggest problems. Those are the forces that Morsi tried to tackle — and which led a rear-guard battle against him and brought him down. In other words, they are the people that brought al-Sisi to the presidency. There are long odds that he will now turn on them to fulfill the promise of his presidency; and even longer odds that he will succeed against them.