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Egypt elections: The coronation of the emperor

There was no contest in Egypt’s presidential elections, and not only because only one candidate stood against Sisi. He offers the security many Egyptians now crave
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Napoleon will be crowned. And after the revolution – after its terrors and deaths and instability and its Islamist Directory – who would begrudge the Emperor his coronation? Why, even the election posters for Field Marshal (retired) Abdel Fattah al-Sisi call him “President of Egypt”, and the only thing you notice, looking into his profoundly chubby, cheerful – might one say dull? – face is that he is in a suit and tie and, in one picture, reclining in a fine old armchair. This is no Emperor without clothes.

And now here’s the shock for me. If I were an Egyptian, I’d have voted for Mr Sisi yesterday. Not that he’s inspiring. Anyone who tells his people that democracy may be 10 – or 20! – years away, is not going to go down in the history books as the Great Liberator. Daniel O’Connell he is not.

But Mr Sisi has three things on his side: he is offering to free Egyptians from the past three years of pseudo-democracy under Mohamed Morsi; he has most of the Croesus-Gulf states – minus Qatar, of course – on his side to rescue Egypt from bankruptcy. And the Americans – rabbit on though they will about Egyptian human rights – will keep their mouths shut and their treasury open to the Egyptian army providing Mr Sisi guarantees the safety of Israel.

And of course, Mr Sisi has offered what all folk want in hard times, especially Westerners and Israelis supposedly confronting the danger of Islamist terror in the Middle East: stability, stability, stability. Come to think of it – and speak not thus of our favourite Field Marshal – that’s what dictators always offer. 

But it’s easy for a foreign reporter to be patronising in Cairo these days, a Western liberal tut-tutting away at the re-infantilisation of a nation, a people who have fought and died for their dignity at the hands of Mubarak’s thugs and have then relapsed into a second political childhood, demanding the return of a dictator, another Nasser, another Sadat, another Mubarak – for he, too, remember, was a very senior member of the armed forces, the commander of the Egyptian air force, no less. Who cares now for the 1,500 Muslim Brotherhood civilians who died under the guns of the security forces last year? They featured in no one’s election campaign. But they were Egyptians, citizens of their country every bit as much as Mr Sisi.

Supporters of presidential candidate Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi in Cairo (AP)

The reality, however, is that Mr Sisi is undoubtedly the man most Egyptians want. Who are we to deny his election if it produced the man Egyptians voted for? And that, as an Egyptian friend asked me on Tuesday, is democracy, isn’t it? Well yes, I tried to explain, but with the Muslim Brotherhood banned as “terrorists” and their supporters – surely several million are still left – with no one to vote for, what does this election mean? Surely the bland Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi with 40 years of political huckstering (and poetry!) behind him – and he’s been the only opposing candidate to the Field Marshal – never believed that he represented the beating heart of Egypt?

The problem for Mr Sisi – and he has many more to come, not least the economic collapse of his country – is what kind of mandate he can really claim to have. A tour of polling stations in central Cairo yesterday did not suggest that the masses were turning out in the numbers he wanted. I found one off July 26 Street without a soul on the premises save for policemen and soldiers. Ala’a, a friend of mine for 10 years, went to vote in a Giza schoolhouse on Monday evening – and was the only voter there. Heba Sharf, branch manager of a Cairo bookshop spent just one minute at her Heliopolis polling station on Monday because there were only two other voters present. A Sabahi voter, I must add, told me there were at least 300 people at his polling station yesterday morning. I wonder.

Unsurprisingly, there were reports of government employees threatened with the loss of $100 from their pay packets if they did not prove they had voted. Journalists loyal to Mr Sisi – which, alas, means almost every television presenter and mainstream scribe in Cairo – were tweeting the news that Mr Sisi might withdraw from the polls if insufficient Egyptians exercised their democratic rights. Too many people, in short, have seen too few people voting.

So what does it mean if Mr Sisi can claim 82 per cent of the vote – my favourite at the moment, for he has to do better than the 81.5 per cent that the old wheelchair President of Algeria claimed a few weeks ago – if the turnout, for example, was only 20 per cent? Certainly, it has got to be far smaller than the figures for the 2012 elections when liberty was as fresh as the flaming “tree of life” acacias now blooming across Cairo.

Journalists outside Egypt have caustically suggested that Mr Sisi is neither Nasser nor Sadat, but “Mubarak in all his splendour” – this from Wael Qandil in the inevitably Qatari-backed Al-Arabi al-Jadid. Al-Musri al-Youm, published in Cairo, recalled, of course, the happiness of Egyptians when Mr Sisi announced that there were “no more Muslim Brothers”. There would be no more “religious officials”, the great man said. “The only man in charge of what goes on in the country … is the head of state. I am presenting myself before the people, and I am telling them: I am the man in charge of values, of principles, morals and religion.”

Sisi supporters asking people to vote after a lower than expected turnout threatened to undermine his credibility (Reuters)

Is this really the stuff of Egyptian dreams? Heba Sharf, the bookshop manager, talked of the growing disappointment of Egyptians after Mubarak’s overthrow and the failure of the 2011 revolution to produce mature leaders – indeed, any leaders at all. This, of course, is to Mr Sisi’s advantage. If the revolution was hijacked by Islamists – a popular narrative in the Western press – then the Field Marshal was the only man standing, untramelled by scandal (let us here forget the Egyptian army’s vast ownership of real estate, factories, etc) or impropriety. All we must forget is that leaders of that self-same 2011 revolution – no Islamists they – have themselves now been banged up in jail.

Where the catch comes in all this is that neither Mr Sisi nor Sabahi – who spent a couple of weeks in jail under Mubarak – have explained their campaign policies. Both promised detailed plans for the future economy but Mr Sisi’s spokesman announced, incredibly, that if the Field Marshal published his proposals, he would be forced to waste too much time replying to questions from the electorate.

No one, however, questions Mr Sisi’s irritation with the United States nor his new-found relationship with the Russians. Vladimir Putin is the taleb to Egyptians – the fox – an animal much admired when cunning rather than courage is a necessary commodity for survival.

The backcloth to all this history-making is that Egypt, with its 94 million people – a population now growing by one million a year – has little influence in the Arab world, let alone outside, and is propped up only by Saudi cash and US grants. But if Egyptians were freed from fear by their revolution in 2011 – and again in 2012, if Morsi’s overthrow is to be regarded as a counter-revolution rather than a military coup – then they will return to the streets again if they are sufficiently humiliated or abused. One of Mr Sisi’s posters yesterday lauded the Field Marshal’s presidency as “the way to regain the Egyptian state”. This was pretty much Napoleon’s tune after 1789 and its subsequent bloodbath. But Napoleon, as we all know, met his Waterloo.