Editorial Board

Egypt Vote Is More a Warning Than a Victory

Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi's victory in Egypt's presidential election was less an election than a coronation. The low turnout should be a warning to him that he does not enjoy widespread popular support. 
A handful of these isn't much of a mandate for General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. Photographer: Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP/Getty Images

The man who led Egypt's military coup last year, General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, has won the country's presidential election with a staggering share of the vote, well above of 90 percent. He has very little to celebrate.

This was less an election than a coronation, given that El-Sisi had thrown his only serious potential challengers in jail, and the winner was never in doubt. The true test of the new president's mandate was always going to be how many voters showed up to endorse his ascent to the throne -- and on that measure he lost.

At less than 50 percent, turnout was significantly lower than it was for the 2012 presidential vote, won by Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, and well below El-Sisi's own projection of about 75 percent. Even the low official number is probably inflated. Polling stations were so empty that Egypt's election commission made a last-minute decision to extend voting by a third day and then, in the absence of monitors, the turnout figure suddenly leapt.

QuickTake Egypt's Revolution

It's not surprising that so many Egyptians would find no reason to vote. Apart from the lack of suspense in the race, they want their basic security and economic needs addressed, and nothing El-Sisi has done since seizing power has made them confident he will deliver. In the past three years, two Egyptian presidents who failed to create jobs and prosperity have fallen after popular protests (the coup against Morsi followed a wave of demonstrations), and this week's ambivalent result shows the same can happen again.

As Egypt's de facto ruler, El-Sisi has sought to obliterate the Brotherhood by force, despite its large mainstream following. (A recent poll found that 38 percent of Egyptians still support the Islamist organization.) Since last year's coup, when security forces killed more than 1,000 pro-Morsi protesters, at least 20,000 people have been jailed and hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and supporters have been sentenced to death in mass show trials. Terrorist attacks on security forces by radical Islamists inevitably followed.

El-Sisi has also curtailed basic freedoms for all Egyptians. And yet he has offered few specifics on how he intends to lead Egypt as an elected president. He barely bothered to campaign. And although his platform offered a few ideas to improve the economy, such as creating 22 new industrial cities, there were no specifics on how such schemes would be accomplished by a state that faces potential insolvency.

To become an effective leader, El-Sisi needs to lay out a clear economic vision -- something Morsi never did. This will have to involve some painful measures, including a reduction in unaffordable energy subsidies, tax reform and a strategy to shrink the country's budget deficit, which last year hit 14 percent of economic output. In order to tolerate the pain such reforms will bring, Egyptians must trust that the president will deliver jobs, and not dismiss a third of the population as "terrorists."

This is a moment for El-Sisi to change course. To demonstrate that he plans to serve all Egyptians, including the many who didn't vote for him, he should reopen the country's political space to all nonviolent parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood; dismantle those parts of the old-regime bureaucracy that hinder investment and growth; and create the kind of economic and legal climate in which companies will invest and create jobs.

The Arab world's most populous nation may not yet be ready for a functioning democracy. But El-Sisi should not expect Egyptians to go back to passively accepting the kind of visionless authoritarian rule they tolerated before the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, in 2011. He should focus less on destroying his political opponents and more on fixing the economy.