A promise to deprive people of a decent night’s sleep might not be a vote-winner in many countries. But for the retired General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the absolute shoo-in as next president of Egypt, the offer of tough love is part of the appeal. Speaking on television, Mr Sisi declared that, once he became head of state, “I will not sleep and neither will you”. It was vintage stuff from a man who likes to compare Egypt to a lazy child and the army to a father who – rightly – does not spare the rod.
Today’s vote is not a genuine election. Only one rival to Mr Sisi is standing, a tame left-winger who has been allowed to run in order to preserve constitutional niceties about competition. The once-dominant Islamists, who convincingly won the much freer election that followed the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011, have no champion. This is unsurprising, as Mr Sisi had their party, the Muslim Brotherhood, outlawed as a terrorist organisation.
Where, then, are the voices raised in protest against the burial of Egypt’s hopes of democracy? Nowhere, it seems. The same Western governments that hailed the overthrow of Mubarak in 2011 as a new dawn only a few years down the line clearly feel mightily relieved that the new dawn is over. It’s not just the Americans and their European allies who discretely welcome this return to the status quo ante in Egypt, of rule by a father-of-the-nation figure. Most of the Gulf monarchies feel likewise. All got their fingers burnt in the so-called Arab Spring and have no regrets that a messy experiment with democracy has been put aside. With Mr Sisi ensconced in Cairo, the Arab Spring is indeed dead and buried – and not just in Egypt; the country’s sheer size means that what happens there has wider impact. A Sisi regime will be a great comfort to the Assads in Syria, as they slowly overwhelm their divided enemies. Had Egypt remained in the hands of the Islamists who won the 2012 election, the Sunni insurgents battling the Assads would have been much encouraged. Now the Syrian rebels appear more isolated than ever.
Assuming that the war in Syria continues in its present trajectory, in favour of the Assads, we could see the emergence of a formidable axis in the Middle East and the Maghreb running from Damascus to Algiers via Cairo. It will comprise a chain of mutually supportive secular, authoritarian, semi-military regimes, and their principal justification in the eyes of their own populations will lie in the claim that they saved their countries from the twin horrors of radical Islam and social chaos.
For the moment, Mr Sisi looks unstoppable. Many Egyptians warm to talk of dawn starts for everyone and lots of nationalism. Among older Egyptians, his message stirs memories of the palmy days of General Nasser, when Egypt was a bigger player in the world than it is today. The problem is that it all sounds backward-looking. The vitality of regimes run by ex-generals does not endure, because they are so averse to criticism and thus also to change. Mr Sisi may have a few fallow years ahead but, in the long term, Egypt and the rest of the Arab world need governments that are more free, not less.