EGYPT’S PRESIDENTIAL election has turned out to be considerably more revealing of national sentiment than might have been expected. Despite increasingly desperate measures by authorities, including the extension of polling from two days to three and threats to fine anyone who didn’t cast a ballot, turnout was disastrously low. While an official newspaper reported a figure of 37 percent Wednesday, other sources, including the sole opposition candidate, said it was closer to 15 percent. The relentless propaganda by the regime of Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, which claimed he enjoyed overwhelming support from an adoring population, was proved false.
That may surprise Western supporters of Gen. Sissi, including many in the Obama administration, who have bought into the former general’s claim that he can restore stability to Egypt. On Wednesday Mr. Obama said at West Point that the United States had not cut off cooperation with the military regime because of “security interests” such as the peace treaty with Israel and “shared efforts against violent extremism.” The election is one more sign that Gen. Sissi lacks the means or the mandate to deliver on those interests.
That the low turnout reflected more than apathy or hot weather was confirmed by a recent survey in Egypt conducted by the Pew Research Center. It showed that 72 percent of Egyptians were dissatisfied with the direction of the country and that Gen. Sissi was viewed favorably by only 54 percent, compared with 45 percent who rated him unfavorably. Despite massive repression, the arrest of thousands of its members and a vicious media campaign, almost 40 percent still were willing to tell Pew’s pollsters they have a positive view of the Muslim Brotherhood and former president Mohamed Morsi.
Gen. Sissi will no doubt take office in spite of the failed election, but his strategy of eliminating the Muslim Brotherhood with repression clearly has no chance of success. If he persists he will drive supporters of the group into the arms of more militant organizations, making terrorism worse.
Meanwhile, interviews Gen. Sissi has been giving suggest his notions for managing the crippled economy range from anachronistic to delusional. As David D. Kirkpatrick of the New York Times reported, his rhetoric echoes the failed state socialism of former military ruler Gamal Abdel Nasser, while his solution to Egypt’s energy shortage is to supply every home with power-saving light bulbs.
Mr. Obama may hope that Gen. Sissi will resemble former president Hosni Mubarak, who governed Egypt under a light autocracy for 30 years. But the chances of that are small. It is more likely that a crumbling economy and smoldering opposition to the coup that brought Gen. Sissi to power will propel Egypt toward increasing disorder, if not another revolution. If the Obama administration ignores warning signs like this week’s election flop, sooner or later it will find itself hanging onto another weak and despised Arab dictator — and calculating the damage to Mr. Obama’s “security interests.”
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