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The Banality of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
The Strongman in Historical Perspective
STEVEN A. COOK is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square.See more by this author
“I wish I was like Nasser,” Egypt’s new president, the retired field marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi told Egyptian journalists during a televised interview in early May, referring to the former president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. “Nasser was not just a portrait on walls for Egyptians but a photo and voice carved in their hearts.” Sisi’s comments seemed rather appropriate; his crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, his military background, and his apparent popularity have a distinctly 1950s feel to them. Yet Sisi is not Nasser. Nor is he Anwar Sadat or Hosni Mubarak, or any other formative Egyptian leader. Sisi is just Sisi. As much as the new president has been billed as a hero and a savior, his coming rule is likely to be banal.
It should be clear to virtually everyone, no less to Sisi, that it is far better to be field marshal and minister of defense than it is to be president. He is hemmed in by Egyptians’ demands, a collapsing economy, a Muslim Brotherhood that is bent on delegitimizing him, and opposition to his rule within the state apparatus. To make matters worse, Sisi has few political resources at his disposal. For a man who rode mythical throngs of 30 million to power in last summer’s coup, things were supposed to be very different.
To be sure, there were signs well before Sisi won virtually all of the vote in last month’s presidential election that his real popular support was not what the pro-Sisi media made it out to be. In last January’s constitutional referendum, which was widely seen as a test for a potential Sisi presidential bid, a resounding 98 percent voted for the constitution, but only 38.6 percent of eligible voters turned out. No matter, the pro-Sisi media and his political supporters calculated that they would have enough time to manufacture a consensus around their candidate.
Yet things got worse for Sisi during May’s presidential elections, when pictures of empty polling places revealed Egyptians’ apathy or opposition toward their new leader. The authorities even took the extraordinary step of extending polling for a day and threatening to impose fines on citizens who did not vote. In the end, Egypt’s Supreme Presidential Election Commission reported that 96.91 percent of voters had selected Sisi and that the turnout had reached 47.45 percent.