Presidential frontrunner and former military chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi can rely at present on considerable public support. But this support appears to be less substantial than the Egyptian media machine projects, and will not last unless he is able to address Egypt’s deep economic, political and social problems.
Since July 3, 2013 and the military takeover that removed the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammad Morsi from power, Egypt’s former military commander and current presidential frontrunner Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has been glorified as the nation’s saviour.
He has used that public and media support to imprison Muslim Brotherhood supporters and other voices of political dissent under Egypt’s newest fight against terrorism. Stigmatising and persecuting dissenting voices focuses public attention away from essential economic and political reform. Instead, it helps legitimise the regime’s battle against ‘Egypt’s enemies.’ While this strategy may strengthen the new regime’s rule in the short term, it will also lead to increased political polarisation, dehumanisation of political dissent, and further strain the fabric of Egyptian society.
When Egyptians took to the streets on January 25, 2011 they rallied for economic reforms, freedom and social justice. Under Morsi’s Islamist-led government these demands were neither tackled nor adequately addressed. Instead Morsi’s non-Islamist opposition found they were increasingly alienated from the political process as the Brotherhood sought to consolidate its hold on power. This eventually led to mass consensus and mobilisation seeking Morsi’s removal, of which the military and its allies in the old order were quick to take advantage.
The period since Morsi’s removal has been characterised by the silencing of political and ideological rivals. The Brotherhood’s support base has been imprisoned by the thousands by security forces and very likely tortured. And with the top tiers of Brotherhood leadership behind bars, the youth are now running the organisation on the ground. With their allies in the anti-coup movement, they continue to rally behind Morsi’s reinstatement as Egypt’s democratically elected and legitimate president.
Additionally, groups like the April Sixth Youth Movement have also been targeted. Its leader, Ahmad Maher, imprisoned, as other key activists have been, including women’s rights advocate Mahienour El-Massry, targeted for protesting illegally under Egypt’s draconian new protest law. Ironically, she was demonstrating in solidarity with Khaled Saeed, a young man whose death at the hands of security services was one of the events that sparked the 2011 revolution.
El-Sisi will seek to strengthen his own legitimacy and the Army’s through the electoral process and he will almost certainly win. However, his victory will not reflect his support on the ground. Many opposition movements have boycotted the elections, including Islamist groups (with the exception of the Salafist Nour Party), liberal groups like April Sixth, and a great number of individuals, especially youth, who are disillusioned with the broader political context.
A study published by the Pew Research Centre conducted in April of this year revealed that 54% of those surveyed think of El-Sisi favourably and over the last year support for the institution of the military has decreased from 73% to 56%. Thus, while the media scramble to contribute to El-Sisi’s cult of personality by portraying him as Egypt’s saviour, fighter of terror, and most-recently, defender of Islam, public opinion seems less inclined to accept this image than the Army elites might have wanted.
While Egyptians may currently support the regime-endorsed focus on ‘stability’ at the expense of individual rights and freedoms, this outlook will very likely change unless the Army leadership is capable of addressing Egypt’s deep socio-economic problems. Ironically, in the long term, this might end up renewing the strength and legitimacy of opposition groups, from the Islamist Brotherhood to the liberals and the left. Although elements of the old regime remain deeply rooted in the Egyptian institutional framework, individual political awareness has been changed over the past three years.
The January 25 Uprising opened up new spaces to question and actively engage with the regime, and while some paths have been closed, it seems only a matter of time before things change again.