Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Elections? What Elections?

Recycled leaders: Political cartoon depicts the cycle from
Mubarak to Morsi and now to al-Sisi
Two days into the Egyptian presidential elections, voter turnout is so low that Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb declared today a national holiday. Voter enthusiasm is wan, dissidents have been locked up in the tens of thousands, and no one seems to doubt what the outcome of this “election” will be. Former Defense Minister Abdel al-Sisi will almost certainly emerge victorious, both because he controls the state-run propaganda machine of the media, and because he has locked up, tortured, or disappeared all those who would be powerful enough to stand against him. In the seventh vote or referendum since Egypt’s revolution of 2011, it appears that the country is no closer to democracy than when it began the process of casting off authoritarian rule.

Al-Sisi’s only opponent in the election is left-wing Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi. Sabahi ran in the 2012 presidential elections and came in third, but is viewed as mere window dressing to give the elections the air of democracy. Even though Sabahi’s chances of victory are next to nothing, campaign workers have nonetheless reported being blocked from polling stations, and prominent lawyer Ahmed Hanafi Abu Zaid was brutally beaten and arrested in a dispute with another campaign worker.

The most sizable opposition groups are Islamists, but the main Islamist organizing force, the Muslim Brotherhood, has been outlawed as a terrorist organization. Over 20,000 dissidents and opposition activists are currently housed in Egypt’s jails, and all who dare speak out against the military coup and transitional regime face imprisonment, torture, even extrajudicial executions. At a pro-Morsi rally last August, protestors were attacked with live fire by security forces, quickly killing over 1,000 people.

Though large swaths of Egyptian society do support the military regime, an equally large proportion either supported the Morsi administration or is opposed to the current coup-created government. Public apathy towards what is seen as an extremely corrupt election process has caused extremely low voter turnout at the polls, with highs on Monday reaching just 12 percent. Foreign news outlets have declined even to send correspondents to cover the election, since the results are viewed as foreordained and interest in the rest of the world remains low. ‘

The Sisi government appears to be a fait accompli, but what the forthcoming government’s policies will be remains a mystery. Al-Sisi has been distinctly vague when it comes to staking out political positions. In a recent interview on national television, he only pledged to institute a program of energy efficient light bulbs in Egyptian homes to combat the energy crisis, and to continue to “eliminate” the Muslim Brotherhood.

Protestors arrested by security forces in Alexandria in Jan.
Yet such broad promises do little to address the problems al-Sisi will be inheriting. The economy has suffered from three years of political turmoil, especially because 11% of GDP is produced in the tourism sector, and tourism has taken a huge hit, with five million fewer visitors to Egypt in 2013 than 2010, the lowest number in recent history. With one in eight Egyptians employed in the tourism sector, these losses are felt throughout society. Since 2000, the number of Egyptians living below the poverty line jumped from 17 to 26 percent, and 24 percent linger just above the cutoff, meaning that at least half of Egyptian society is at risk.

Thus far the interim government has been propped up by unconditional loans from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE, to the tune of $16 billion. Al-Sisi also appears poised to do what his predecessor Morsi would not: impose austerity policies to elicit loans from the IMF. Even with these extra lifelines, however, serious economic restructuring is necessary to bring Egypt’s economy into a state that can sustain the young population in the decades to come. As the leaders of European nations undergoing austerity regimes have found, the policies will do little to ingratiate Al-Sisi to the population and will be felt the most by the least secure Egyptians.

Around 60 percent of Egypt’s population is also below the age of 30, which means both that the country is desperately in need of jobs to employ these young people, and that the situation is more volatile, since youth led the revolution of 2011. Al-Sisi is least popular among the young, and whatever the outcomes of these elections, they will present a sizable opposition bloc with which he will have to contend. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, he cannot simply lock up millions of young people on the basis of age and frustration. If al-Sisi is as adept or less so than his predecessor at addressing the deep-seated problems of Egypt’s economy and demography, the country is looking at a long road towards development, democracy, and stability.

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