To the vast surprise of absolutely nobody, Field Marshal Abdel Fatah al-Sisi won the Egyptian presidential election two weeks ago.
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 96,3% that Egypt’s last dictator, Hosni Mubarak, claimed in his first election or 100% that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein allegedly got in 2002. No, Sisi claimed 93,3%, a number low enough that it might be true.
Sisi’s real problem is even with the media cowed and the full resources of the state behind him, only 46% of eligible Egyptians voted. He had predicted 80%.
As an aspiring dictator who overthrew the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Mursi, a year ago, Sisi needed a big turnout.
At least 1 500 protesters have been shot dead and a minimum of 16 000 political dissidents are in jail. Sisi needed to demonstrate massive public support for what he did. He didn’t get it.
Toward the end of the scheduled two days of voting, the people around him panicked. Interim prime minister Ibrahim Mahlab let slip that barely 30% had voted so far and the regime announced there would be a third day of voting. An unscheduled public holiday was declared, and non-voters were threatened with a large fine.
Still, journalists reported many polling booths were almost empty on the third day. But let’s be generous and assume that 40% of eligible Egyptians did vote.
If 93,3% of those people did vote for Sisi, then he has the support of just over one-third of Egyptians. Other Arab dictators have ruled their countries for decades with no more popular support than that, but it will probably not sustain Sisi through the hard times that are coming.
Egypt’s economy is running on fumes, and there would not be enough bread for people if Sisi were not getting massive infusions of aid from Saudi Arabia and most of the smaller Gulf states happy that he is killing the Egyptian revolution.
But their great wealth cannot win Sisi more than a breathing space. There is no good reason to believe that the Egyptian army, which is effectively in charge, has the skill to resolve the country’s grave economic problems.
Indeed, its highest priority will be to protect its own massive business empire.
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 one year.
Austerity is not going to win him any thanks from Egypt’s poor. 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. Mursi and another Islamist candidate got a total of 42% of the votes in the first round, while the leftist candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi, got 21%.
We can safely presume few Islamist supporters voted in last week’s election. 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 got only 3% this time. Islamists and leftists therefore make up the majority of the 55% to 60% who did not vote for Sisi this time.
Those who did vote for Sisi were mostly people with no strong ideological convictions who were simply exhausted by the turmoil of the past three years.
They voted for “stability”, and believed Sisi’s promise that he could 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 when he said “stability”, he meant an improvement in their living standards, and it’s most unlikely that he can deliver that.
When they lose faith in Sisi, the opposition will achieve critical mass, and it probably won’t take more than two years. The Egyptian revolution is not over yet.
Dyer is a London-based freelance journalist.