The Great Debate

Why Egyptians voted for Sisi


Former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is set to win the presidential elections in Egypt this week, almost a year after Egypt’s military reasserted formal control following widespread revolts against Mohamed Mursi.

While a popular uprising preceded the military’s intervention last June, the counter-revolutionary crackdown that followed over the past nine months has soured many Egyptians against the current order. So why is Sisi going to be Egypt’s next president, and why would the same Egyptians who ousted Hosni Mubarak now clamor for another authoritarian military man to take power, rather than support a more inclusive democratic process? Is the clock being turned back?

Few observers outside Egypt understand the reason for Sisi’s popularity, which is based largely on the desire for security. Many Egyptians feel that the country has become chaotic: if forced to choose between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, they prefer the military. While both are authoritarian organizations, the military has more experience, national loyalty, and respect for Egypt as a country, rather than part of a wider pan-Islamic region. Its view of Islam is more mainstream.

Many Egyptians also see the military as better-equipped to improve the country’s struggling economy. It controls as much as 40 percent of the Egyptian economy, through military-run factories, food production factories and land ownership. Currently, the country depends on aid from Gulf nations, while crucial sectors like tourism are suffering. Reserves are quickly running out. Yet the problem, according to some observers, is that this perception of the military’s economic might is a mirage, and that the army actually has a long history of economic mismanagement.

sisi88The violence in neighboring Syria and Libya that turned into armed Islamist insurgencies has also had an impact on voters. Because these countries have suffered from armed revolutions against military regimes, many Egyptians believe that the present order is far better than the scenarios that have played out next door. They would prefer the state to offer some semblance of order and unity — even if it is a mirage.

Everything is negotiable in Egypt

As Egypt’s military-led government appears to be solidifying its gains, and Cairo largely succumbs to its harsh measures, talk of civil war has, for now, abated. One big reason for this is because in Egypt everything is negotiable.

An old Egypt hand told me this in 2011, when I moved there to work at the American University in Cairo. I thought his advice referred to navigating turbulent academic waters. I soon realized, however, that it applied to the entire country. Throughout my two years in Egypt, this advice helped me make sense of the head-snapping events taking place in the political arena. It can also help predict a likely outcome of Egypt’s current situation.

When everything is negotiable, there can be no fixed prices, or fixed principles. Opportunities for deals abound. This includes political support, alliances, ideologies — even constitutional articles. Mortal enemies one day are allies the next.