By Onyeka Chidozie
Egyptians will go to the polls from 26 – 27 May 2014 to elect a new President and Government. Hitherto, only one candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi, had declared his interest to run for the presidency. The rest are holding back and there is the possibility that Hamdeen might withdraw in order to embarrass Al-Sisi. The real wait has been to see what former Defense Minister and Army Chief Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi would decide to do. On March 26, he finally announced his resignation from the military preparatory to running for the presidency. This was expected and therefore came as no surprise.
Egypt’s military authorities have already asked him to run but he delayed an official declaration until March 26, of any intent to make himself a candidate. If the current mood in the country is anything to go by, however, then there is little doubt about which the country’s next President will be as Al-Sisi is expected to win easily in the first round. Al-Sisi is the real power behind the current interim government ruling the country and will be a shoo-in for the presidency. He enjoys such widespread popularity among the majority of Egyptian people that he has almost reached cult status in the way he is held up by the Egyptian populace.
Of course, this is not to say that Al-Sisi does not have those who oppose him. The Muslim Brotherhood who considers him a traitor and the interim government illegitimate detests him. Their loyalty is to Mohammed Morsi, the former President who was ousted by the military under Al-Sissi’s leadership in July 2013.
Morsi’s ousting plunged Egypt into a sectarian violence and created a huge political divide across the country. In addition, it raised very fundamental questions about Egypt’s democracy.
Mr. Morsi’s ousting was an action that both Egyptians and the world at large are still struggling with. He was elected President in the aftermath of the Arab Spring revolution that swept away former strongman Hosni Mubarak. Mr. Mubarak was forced to resign in the face of the strong public protest and violence against his continued stay in office. His departure left a political landscape without any well-established parties. The Muslin Brotherhood, however, had a very well established grassroots community organization across the country and was able to quickly morph into a political party. Capitalizing on that grassroots organization, Morsi campaigned for office as a nominee of the Muslin Brotherhood. He adopted a moderate tone in his campaign, presenting an image of a leader that would run an inclusive government that would focus on accommodating the interests of Egyptians of all political and religious views. It was, however, a different story after he got into office. With the prodding and support of his political backers in the Muslim Brotherhood, he made a hard turn and began implementing changes that many considered to be the Islamist agenda. Not only did he change the constitution to give it what many considered a more Islamist coloration, which curtailed the rights of many groups, he arrogated powers to himself.
The result was that most segments of the society, feeling alienated, turned against him and his government. They asked him to resign his presidency. When he ignored them, they embarked on a signature gathering campaign among those that wanted him to resign. After collecting millions of signatures, they presented him with a deadline to resign by June 2013. Morsi, however, insisted that he was a duly elected president and would not resign. It was at this stage that the military under Field Marshall Al-Sisi, stepped in and forced him out, placing him under arrest after the ouster. The military then constituted an interim government made up of representatives of the various political parties in the country. A constituent assembly was subsequently constituted and came up with a new draft constitution, which was overwhelmingly passed by the people.
In the meantime, the Muslim Brotherhood was proscribed. Its members refused to participate in the referendum for the new constitution that was drafted and, in fact, urged a boycott. Following Mr. Morsi’s removal, members of the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters had mounted protests and sit-ins across Cairo but the military violently put down the sit-ins with hundreds of deaths reported. Since these events, there has been a low level insurgency in the country with several cases of bombings, mainly targeting security forces. Not surprisingly, a sense of insecurity can be felt across the country.
For many observers who prefer a strict interpretation of the democratic process, the action of the military in removing President Morsi amounted to a coup d’état. In their view, Mr. Morsi was properly elected and, as the legitimate President, could only be removed as per the terms of the constitution through the electoral process. They, therefore, regard the government in Egypt today as illegitimate.
This view, however, differs significantly from the view held by the military, the interim government and the majority of Egyptians. For them, although legitimately elected, President Morsi lost that legitimacy when he betrayed the trust of the people by taking on an Islamist agenda and arrogating powers to himself, rather than implementing the encompassing agenda he had promised during his campaign. To them, he no longer represented their interest and when the same people that elected him asked him to resign in overwhelming numbers, with their signatures, that was confirmation that he had lost his legitimacy. They, therefore, see the military as having responded to the will of the people in removing Mr. Morsi and as having performed its role of protecting the country.
At this stage, it is all a waiting game in Egypt. An Al-Sisi presidency can portend many things for Egypt. He will be getting into office with overwhelming popular support. A key challenge will be whether he can successfully address the security challenge that has confronted the country. Most of the violence that has rocked Egypt since Morsi’s ouster has been blamed on Islamists. Although the Brotherhood has been banned, Egyptian authorities have attributed the violence to the organization and its supporters. If Al-Sisi were able to reign in that campaign of violence and bring back order and stability to the country, he would have accomplished the wish of many Egyptians.
A second challenge will have to do with the economy. The Egyptian economy has suffered a major downturn since the removal of Mr. Morsi. Tourism, the mainstay of the economy, has been hard hit with major drops in the number of visitors as many worry about their safety. By restoring stability, an Al-Sissi government would revive tourism and give the economy a boost.
As they say in politics, one day is a long time. It is impossible to predict with certainty what will happen in the future and how Egyptians will vote. All the signs are there, however, for an easy victory for Al-Sisi. That would mean a return to power by the military but it would also be a return prompted by the will of the people. No matter what, Egypt remains one of the most important countries in the Middle East. What happens there has implications for the whole region. The international community must, therefore, tread cautiously in responding to the developments in Egypt, even as the low-level violence against state and police targets continues during and after the elections.