Egypt Elects Former Army Chief Sisi President

After three years, Egyptians vote to turn back the clock to before the “Arab Spring” uprising.

Posters of Egyptian army chief Abdul Fatah Khalil al-Sisi hang from a bridge in central Cairo, February 3
Posters of Egyptian army chief Abdul Fatah Khalil al-Sisi hang from a bridge in central Cairo, February 3 (Reuters/Asmaa Waguih)

Egypt’s former army chief Abdul Fatah Sisi won a resounding victory in the Arab nation’s presidential election on Wednesday, seemingly turning back the block to before the “Arab Spring” uprising that forced the former air force commander Hosni Mubarak out of office.

The outcome was never really in doubt. Among his supporters, the retired field marshal and former defense minister is seen as the strongman who can restore calm to Egypt after more than three years of political unrest. Even many liberal and secular Egyptians who demonstrated against Mubarak voted to effectively hand control of the country back to the military.

Sisi’s only challenger, the leftist Hamdeen Sabahi, got just 3 percent support, provisional results released early Thursday showed.

But with turnout reportedly under 45 percent, the election, which was extended to a third day at the last minute, also showed that the high hopes millions of Egyptians had when they took to the streets of Cairo and other major cities in early 2011 to demand Mubarak’s resignation have been dimmed by a rocky and sometimes violent political transition that wasted much of the country’s prestige in the Middle East.

Sisi declared his candidacy in March but had been lionized in the Egyptian media for months after leading a coup against the country’s elected president, Mohamed Morsi, less than a year earlier.

Despite winning a majority of the votes in parliamentary and presidential elections after the fall of Mubarak, Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood quickly became unpopular when its majoritarian politics alarmed religious minorities and women and the movement proved unable to tackle the country’s many economic problems.

Sisi presided over a crackdown of the Islamist movement that killed hundreds of its supporters and landed thousands more in jail. Morsi himself is in prison and standing trail. The Muslim Brotherhood has been declared illegal.

Despite lingering security concerns, especially in the Sinai Peninsula where militants have carried out attacks against Egyptian military personnel and Israeli border posts, Sisi’s priority as president will be the economy which is in dire straits.

3.2 percent growth is expected next year — up from 2 to 2.5 percent this year but still far short of the 5 percent growth rates under Mubarak. The government has been running a deficit at 12 percent of gross domestic product. Unemployment is officially at 14 percent but that masks the real problem of underemployment, especially among the youth, that contributed to the 2011 uprising.

Foreign investment and tourism have dwindled since then. Egypt’s trade deficit has exploded while food and fuel supplies are running short. Morsi’s government made the crisis worse when it imposed capital and price controls that drove up inflation, forcing even more Egyptians to turn to the black market for affordable goods.

Nearby Arab Gulf states provided financial help when the army took over last year but Egypt’s most important ally outside the region, the United States, later cut part of its financial and military support.