By Patrick Johnson
60 years after Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak, and Morsi, Egypt may soon have a chance for stable democracy. On July 3, 2013 Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced on behalf of the Egyptian Armed Forces that the military was ousting President Mohammed Morsi as he had failed to meet the people’s demands. On Jan. 24, this same man announced his candidacy for President to huge fanfare. Now, Egypt and the world wait with bated breath: will this finally be the leader hoped for by so many, or merely the next Dictator-in-Chief, à la Mubarak?
A wildly popular candidate, al-Sisi is expected to run virtually unopposed and win in a landslide during the next presidential election. Throughout Egypt, posters comparing the handsome, clean-cut general to Gamal Abdel-Nasser can be seen everywhere. Al-Sisi actively encourages this comparison for, as The Guardian reports, “Nasser is still revered here…there is this misguided belief that only a strongman can sort out the mess that is Egypt.” The polls seem to indicate as much, with 98% of the voting population indicating favor toward al-Sisi. Popular sentiments, typified by thousands of adorers clad in t-shirts bearing al-Sisi’s likeness, appear to be at an all-time high.
Yet the obstacles to stability are formidable. First is the systemic violence in Egypt that has gone unabated since the Revolution in 2011. In recent years, Cairo has borne witness to a litany of bombings, attacks and shootings. Most recently, a bombing at the police headquarters marked the anniversary of the start of the Revolution. The interim government has attempted to quell such violence through heavy-handed measures. As Amnesty International states in a damning new report: “There is no end in sight for human rights violations.”
A bigger obstacle, and perhaps the driver of such violence, is the thorny issue of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). From its perspective, the MB won three elections (presidential, congressional, and constitutional) in one year and therefore deserve the rights entitled to a democratically elected president. However critics, or more precisely, the millions of Egyptians who protested Morsi’s radical rule, say these elections were a farce and they were forced to choose between the Brotherhood and Mubarak’s successor. Now, following Morsi’s ousting, MB leaders are calling for “endless violence” until Morsi is returned to power and “democracy is restored”.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s recent outlawing illustrates a political paradox: a party can win national elections one year, and be banished the next. However we should not mourn the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood. Rather, we should mourn the Muslim Brotherhood’s spectacular failure, as it has necessitated a return to the shadows from which they have recently emerged. What to do with the Muslim Brotherhood will not be an easy question for al-Sisi to answer, especially not with Morsi screaming from jail that he is still the rightful ruler of Egypt. Unfortunately, until this paradox is resolved, Egypt will forever be stuck having to endure the “growing pains” of democracy.
The next obstacle is the same cancerous root that provided the initial spark for the first revolution: the economy. Hit hard by the decline in tourism and FDI money, the Egyptian economy grew just over 1% in the first quarter of 2014. Other Gulf countries have recognized Egypt’s desperate need for money and pledged 12 billion since Morsi’s July 3 overthrow. The urgent need for economic improvement is lost on no one (recall that calls for “bread” were uttered in the same breath as “dignity” in the 2011 revolutions). If the economy continues to stagnate and unemployment remains high (still above 10% as of February), there will be no stability in Egypt.
On one hand, al-Sisi inspires much hope. Finally, Egypt will (most likely) have a popular leader who is capable of leading. Al-Sisi’s governance could result in the type of constitutional and civil rights reform that the revolutionaries have long hoped for. Moreover, smooth elections may inspire confidence in outside investors to invest in Egypt and spur the economy into growth. On the other hand, al-Sisi may be the final nail in the coffin for democracy in Egypt. With such chaos in the country, it would be easy for this military man to follow in the footsteps of Egypt’s past rulers and solidify his power; it would be easy for him to stay in control for decades.
Many say this latter outcome will never happen again, that Egypt has awoken to its own consciousness and a dictatorship will never again be allowed to survive—at least, not without revolutionaries returning to the streets of Tahrir. This writer certainly hopes that this is the case, but if al-Sisi is to provide the nation with both stability and democracy, he will have to be far better than any leader who has come before him. Al-Sisi must resist the temptation to become the “strong man” that Egypt does not actually need. Instead, he must be the strong moral center of a renewed Egypt.
Photo by The Secretary of Defense