For all the brouhaha over voter turnout, Egypt’s new president will be judged on his conduct in office
After an election that focused on a bizarre tug-of-war over voter turnout, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been sworn in as the new president of Egypt. Yet he and his new government will not be judged by the minutia of turnout percentages or the size of his mandate, but rather by their performance in office. They face a daunting set of challenges.
In the first, officially scheduled, two days of the voting, Mr. Sisi’s critics made much of what appeared to be a very low turnout. In a move that suggested undue insecurity about these numbers, the election was extended under dubious legal circumstances for a third day, which was also made a national holiday. In the end, turnout was officially tallied at 44%, with over 90% voting for Sisi.
Despite the extra day of voting, this is not a low turnout, particularly given the number of elections Egyptians have had to vote in over the past few years and the overwhelming likelihood of a massive Sisi victory. And it is a gigantic mandate. Yet in the aftermath of the voting, bickering over the question of turnout continued, as if it were actually a major issue.
Mr. Sisi will undoubtedly be judged based on performance in office, and both the turnout and the size of his mandate won’t assuage the Egyptian public if they feel let down again. He faces three major challenges that will be daunting: security, the economy, and a presidency whose powers are greatly curtailed by the new constitution passed after the ouster of former President Mohammed Morsi.
As both his campaign and that of his rival, Hamdeen Sabahi, emphasized, security is a paramount issue in Egypt, given the undoubted terrorist threat the country faces from armed extremists. But the security and economic questions are deeply interconnected. Foreign investment and the Egyptian stock market have been on the rise since Mr. Morsi’s ouster, but investor confidence will depend on multiple factors, including a sense that security and stability are steadily being restored. Without such confidence, it will be harder to attract sustained foreign direct investment.
In addition, Mr. Sisi’s new government faces myriad structural economic difficulties, some of them deeply fraught politically. Egypt’s currency has been steadily losing value, which could deter additional investment. Unemployment has increased to 13% of the labor force, an unsustainable figure. The generation of jobs will have to be a major priority. Egypt also faces a substantial fiscal deficit, and has yet to fully rebuild ties to the International Monetary Fund, which may be key in reducing that deficit on favorable terms.
The country’s ongoing energy crisis is a crucial indicator of how difficult reconciling necessary economic measures with politically unpopular steps is going to be. The country owes almost six billion dollars to international energy companies, and the inability to pay for needed energy has resulted in power shortages across the country.
Eliminating subsidies and electricity tariffs is an obvious measure to reverse this trend. But one can hardly think of a more politically unpopular move. This tension between what may be economically necessary for a major recovery in the long run, and what will prove politically unpalatable in the short run, is a consistent theme throughout Egypt’s economic puzzle. The conundrum, simply, is that a new government cannot maintain credibility and popularity without achieving significant economic progress, but at the same time, the measures required for such progress may often be deeply unpopular.
Mr. Sisi, whose overall economic approach is still unclear, has spoken of massive building projects that he calculated would cost approximately $140 billion. That’s well over half the country’s gross national income, so how even those job-creating measures would be paid for remains unexplained.
The backdrop to these profound challenges is that Mr. Sisi inherits a presidency whose powers have been enormously curtailed by the new constitution. Once a parliament is in place, the president will be able to do little without its cooperation and approval. This is a major change in Egypt’s traditionally presidential-centric system, and how these new theoretically impressive checks and balances will work in practice to get things done quickly, especially if they anger important constituencies, isn’t clear. The ability of public groupings and entrenched interests to use parliament to block executive action – on paper – would be significant. Mr. Sisi is used to running a military. The new Egyptian political system, as laid out in the new constitution, will be a profoundly different matter.
The overall atmosphere in Egypt isn’t particularly reassuring. In addition to profound and deeply interconnected security and economic challenges, the country has suffered yet another blow to political openness: Bassem Youssef’s irreverent and profoundly healthy “Al Bernameg” television satire program, based on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” has been canceled. The host cited fears for his “personal safety and the safety of [his] family,” although he did not say anything to suggest that Mr. Sisi was directly or indirectly involved in making it impossible for his program to continue.
Whatever the source of these intolerable pressures, Egypt has lost an invaluable and highly positive contribution to culture and discourse. Even when facing serious security and economic woes, a healthy society must be able to tolerate, and indeed should celebrate, satire and irreverence. Whoever were exactly the forces that made Mr. Youssef finally throw in the towel, it’s unlikely they did themselves a favor in the long run.
Even in the context of serious security threats, it’s vital that the new government move quickly to improve the political atmosphere in the country, begin to scale back a crackdown that has been far too indiscriminate and heavy-handed, and open, rather than restrict, the free expression of ideas, including critical ones.
Mr. Sisi now has a clear mandate, significant popularity, and will enjoy a political honeymoon – or at least a grace period – from the general public. But without significant indications of an improving security and economic climate, that honeymoon certainly won’t be open-ended, and may not last all that long. When former President Hosni Mubarak fell, so did the era in which Egyptians would tolerate decades of misrule with patience.
Mr. Morsi managed to exhaust his welcome in less than a year through intolerably arrogant and dictatorial conduct. Mr. Sisi is highly unlikely to repeat such a dismal performance, but his presidential authority is much more limited than that enjoyed by either of his two immediate predecessors. And yet the Egyptian public will undoubtedly still be judging him on a performance basis. They have shown their willingness to withdraw consent from unsatisfactory presidents twice in recent years. Anyone, Mr. Sisi included, is potentially subject to some form of popular expression of no-confidence if they don’t meet minimum expectations.
But it’s in the interests of all responsible parties, and especially Egypt and its people, for Mr. Sisi’s new government to succeed with constructive policies. Therefore he’ll need, and should get, substantial foreign support to meet the daunting problems he faces, in addition to as much patience as the Egyptian public can muster given the depth of these shared national challenges, and, once it’s in place, as much cooperation and as little obstruction from the next parliament on reasonable, constructive policies as possible.