Former commanding general of the Egyptian army Abdel Fatah el-Sisi was sworn in as President of Egypt this week following what were described as presidential elections last week. El-Sisi is said to have received 96 per cent of the votes cast, on a turnout of 47 per cent of the electorate. In the previous presidential election of 2012 the electoral picture was quite different, reflecting what we are likely to recognize as the kind of result prevalent in constitutionally democratic countries. For at that time, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi received a mere 51 per cent of the vote over his opponent Ahmed Shafiq’s 48 per cent.
That the newly elected President el-Sisi had overthrown Morsi is a reversion to the modern history of Egypt and has caused hardly a ripple in Western circles as major countries attended his swearing in as if he had been elected in an acceptably free and fair election. Prevailing sentiment in the United States and Europe appears to be that the election of one who had overthrown the previous president, on the ground that his Muslimism was likely to be a threat to what the Egyptian army considers as normality, is more or less par for course, and is likely to be in the those countries’ interests.
In those quarters, Morsi is felt to have dug his own electoral grave by seeking to enforce a system of rule based on Muslimist principles, when in fact the results of the presidential election that brought him to office did not justify this. As mentioned above, in 2012 Morsi received 51.7 per cent of the vote to his opponent’s 48 per cent, a result indicating that the Egyptian population was not really ready to accept Muslimist extremist and monopolizing rule.
El-Sisi’s election has also been welcomed by other Arab countries, and in particular by Saudi Arabia which, although strictly Muslim, felt threatened by the possible overflow of influence of the Muslim Brotherhood’s radicalism. They now feel comfortable at the prospect of a regime in Egypt which does not adopt a proselytising role either of Nasserist-style nationalism, or of a populist Muslimism as displayed by Morsi. And this kind of sentiment has also been displayed by the monarchies of the Gulf of Arabia and Jordan, fearful of Morsi’s Muslimism taking root in their countries.
The election of el-Sisi is also likely to be of comfort to the government of Israel, since he will most probably adopt, on the Israel-Palestine issue, a posture of relative conservatism vis-à-vis the competing forces in Palestine itself. This would be essentially supportive of the Israeli strategy of seeking to inhibit a unification of the Palestinian Front forces which appears to be presently in train once again.
The removal of Morsi and the election of el-Sisi are also likely to result in a shift in the Middle Eastern balance of forces on the issue of the current uprising in Syria. The increasing evidence of the presence and influence of al Qaeda-influenced groups in that country has become a cause for concern, and has induced President Assad to take a hardened line of crushing his opposition as against the adoption of any conciliatory position as advocated by the United States and the NATO countries, as well as by a government of Turkey fearful of the increasingly damaging effects of the overflow of Syrians across its borders. And in that regard, Prime Minister Erdogan’s posture is not dissimilar to that of the Jordanian monarchy which is also feeling the pressure of hosting a continual flow of Syrians into that country as well.
The new Egyptian leadership will once again be adopting the traditional role of merging the army into the political system, ensuring the stabilization of the regime, and cleaning the government of the country of excessive Muslimist religious sentiment and influence. This is more or less the posture adopted by Gamal Abdel Nasser as he stabilized his regime, and by President Mubarak as he continued what was essentially military rule, in spite of his regime’s periodic electoral outings.
El-Sisi will, we suspect, be, in the early period of his regime, well conscious of popular disapproval of the kind of economic exploitation undertaken by the Mubarak government and which eventually delegitimised it. And he will, no doubt, at least initially, seek to give the impression of cleaning out the stables. But how long this will last, given the military’s long domination of all the levers of power, is another question.
The new president, with his lopsided victory of ninety-six per cent of the vote, will undoubtedly be continually conscious of the distribution of the vote shown in the election which brought Morsi to power. He will be aware of the precarious balance of strengths indicated in the narrow victory attained by the Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood over his opponent Ahmed Shafik, indicating that in reality, no single force in Egypt has a monopoly of the people’s support at this time.
But the odds are that, in the tradition of army rule in Egypt, he will make an attempt to rewrite the slate by undertaking a combined judicial and military onslaught against the Muslimist forces. But Egypt’s own history tells us that the driving of those forces off the political battlefield will not necessarily remove their influence over large numbers of the Egyptian population. Egypt is therefore likely to undergo a period of hardened military repression in the forseeable future.
Whether this will be of any immediate concern to the Western powers is left to be seen.