The Godot of Egypt

After years of turmoil, many Egyptians view Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as a saviour – but miracles are unlikely, experts warn.

Polls show former Egyptian military chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi will easily win next month's presidential election [EPA]

As speculation crystallised into certainty about his presidential bid, former Egyptian military chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has been received like a saviour by throngs of the country’s populace.

Sisi’s name and image have been plastered on everything from clothing and jewelry to chocolates and sandwiches, with supporters passionately defending a man they have compared to beloved former president Gamal Abdel Nasser. When Sisi formally registered last week as a candidate for the May vote, he delivered 200,000 signatures to Egypt’s election commission – eight times the number required.

All but guaranteed of electoral victory, Sisi is set to inherit a country mired in political and economic crisis, with unemployment hovering around 13 percent. Egyptians are desperate for a better future, and Sisi’s strong links to the military – viewed broadly as the only functioning institution in the country – have allowed him to solidify a formidable base, said Nancy Okail, executive director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, a US nonprofit research organisation focused on Middle Eastern countries undergoing democratic transitions. In addition to his lifelong military career, Sisi has close ties to Egypt’s new military chief, General Sedki Sobhi, and the new army chief of staff, Lieutenant General Mahmoud Hegazy, the father-in-law of Sisi’s son.

I don't think there is overwhelming consensus on him, whether he can bring about some sort of stability and prosperity. That remains a big question mark.

by - Samer Atallah, assistant professor of economics, American University in Cairo

“As prerequisites for economic growth, of course, stability and security are widely demanded,” Okail told Al Jazeera. “The military, and by extension Sisi, are widely seen as combating the threat presented by the Muslim Brotherhood and other organisations. The element of power – the idea of a delivering to the people a more secure Egypt – is certainly wrapped up within the emerging Sisi mythos.”

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Born in Cairo in 1954, Sisi spent many years in military training and served as a military attache in Saudi Arabia during the era of President Hosni Mubarak. After the 2011 revolution that ousted Mubarak, Sisi took charge of Egypt’s military intelligence, and later presided over the 2013 coup d’etat that removed Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi from power.

Speculation about Sisi’s plans to run in the 2014 election emerged swiftly afterwards, but it was not until late March that he officially “gave up the uniform” in exchange for a presidential bid.

“I have spent all my life as a soldier for the sake of the country… I am telling you that I intend to run for the president of Egypt, and this support from you will give me this honour,” Sisi said in a nationally televised address, suggesting he could restore order in a country “threatened by terrorists”.

For months, Sisi has played on the citizenry’s fears, trumpeting the country’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood as a way to restore stability. On December 25, Egypt’s interim government declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation, and more than 500 of the group’s supporters have since been sentenced to death.

A recent poll by the Egyptian Centre for Public Opinion Research indicated that nearly 40 percent of voters would cast a ballot for Sisi, compared to less than one percent for Egyptian politician Hamdeen Sabahi, his only confirmed challenger. The number was down from about 50 percent who supported Sisi in an earlier March poll. Close to 60 percent of the electorate remained undecided, and in the meantime, Sisi’s opponents have taken to social media to denounce his bid, creating the hashtag #VoteForThePimp as a counterattack against a surge of pro-Sisi posts.

“I don’t think there is overwhelming consensus on him, whether he can bring about some sort of stability and prosperity. That remains a big question mark,” Samer Atallah, an assistant professor of economics at the American University in Cairo, told Al Jazeera. With a dearth of independent opinion polls in the country, Atallah said, it is difficult to gauge how much of the ongoing “Sisi-mania” is genuine, and how much is amplified by the media.

He is not competing against other candidates; what he's competing against is indifference and disillusionment.

by - Michele Dunne, senior associate with Carnegie's Middle East Program

“You can ask someone and he’ll say, ‘Yes, he’ll bring stability and he’s the only saviour,’ and the type of stories you read in the media. You can ask someone else and he’ll tell you the totally opposite,” Atallah said.

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According to Michele Dunne, an Egypt expert and senior associate with Carnegie’s Middle East Program in Washington, DC, residents should expect to see a new wave of Sisi-mania in the weeks leading to the May 26-27 election, propelled by Sisi’s vast campaign team. The fervent Sisi support in many quarters of the country stems less from the candidate himself than from a broader exhaustion at Egypt’s years-long state of chaos, Dunne told Al Jazeera – and from a media machine that has turned Sisi into an icon. “People don’t know enough about [Sisi] to really have a strong feeling about him personally,” she noted. “It’s really more that he symbolises the army… [and a possible] return to normalcy.” 

The question is not whether Sisi will win, but by how much, Dunne added. Voter turnout is traditionally quite low in Egypt – often around 50 percent or less – and if that trend holds next month, “it would look like he won because he was the only viable candidate, but that there’s not a great deal of enthusiasm for him… He is not competing against other candidates; what he’s competing against is indifference and disillusionment.”

Egypt under Sisi, however, would not look much different than Egypt today, said Samer Shehata, an associate professor of Middle Eastern politics at the University of Oklahoma.

“As time goes on and he is not able to deliver economic miracles or political solutions, his popularity will naturally wane,” Shehata told Al Jazeera. Indeed, Sisi will be vulnerable to some of the same criticisms as Mubarak, stemming from repressive policies, human-rights abuses and economic stagnation, with key sectors such as tourism, construction and manufacturing still reeling from the revolution. Studies have shown sustained economic underperformance in countries that experience political turmoil, from low growth and high unemployment to soaring deficits and a drop in investments.

The early stages of Sisi’s presidency will likely bring a concerted push against “terrorism” and a focus on economic development, with pieces of his anticipated economic strategy already trickling out, including the construction of a nuclear reactor and the building of one million low-income housing units. But the fervour surrounding Sisi – the mythos driving his campaign – could ultimately backfire when his achievements stall, experts say.

“These kinds of concerns appear present in the government even now; look at Sisi’s recent comments promoting the ideas of austerity and shared sacrifice in the near term,” Okail said. “These are the words of a government concerned that people’s expectations may be rising too high.”

Follow Megan O’Toole on Twitter: @Megan_OToole

Source: Al Jazeera