Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who as supreme commander of the Egyptian armed forces led the July 2013 coup which ousted democratically-elected President Muhammad Morsi, was sworn into office as president yesterday after overwhelmingly winning an election held late last month.
Many Western analysts and diplomats remain at best ambivalent about the coup. While I am glad it happened—Morsi may have been democratically elected but once in office he showed the disdain with which he held democracy—analysts and academics can make a good argument that rather than overthrow Morsi, Egyptians should have simply let him hang himself with a noose of his own making and then oust him in the next round of elections. While that sounds good in theory, it misunderstands the ideology at the core of the Muslim Brotherhood: When legitimacy comes from God and not the people, and the Muslim Brotherhood believed it had a monopoly on God, they would shed few tears if they had to sacrifice future elections for power.
With Sisi confirmed as president—and, despite the lower-than-expected turnout—these elections were legitimate, it would be counterproductive for Western officials to seek to turn back the clock or to re-legislate the past. Morsi is gone, Sisi is in power and Egypt is too important to ignore.
Whether Sisi is up to the challenge, however, is uncertain. Overthrowing Morsi and getting elected were the easy parts. Fixing Egypt is the hard part. The problem isn’t politics but economics. Former President Hosni Mubarak presided over a corrupt dictatorship. Egypt’s economy was growing impressively, but too often only those closely associated with Mubarak or the military benefited. Egypt had become the poster child for crony capitalism. Income inequality was high and, more importantly, the opportunity gap was higher. Subsidies—by some counts represent 90 percent of Egypt’s budget deficit—remain an intractable problem.
Gulf allies can delay the inevitable in Egypt with billions of dollars in aid but unless Egypt fixes its structural problems, that simply is pouring money down the drain. Sisi is smart, and he knows that the subsidies which Egyptians expect are unsustainable. The costs for any involvement, covert or otherwise, in sustaining Libya’s anti-Islamist groupings will only add to the pressure. The question, though, is what bargain Sisi struck with military oligarchs and power brokers to stay in office. If his backers expect the same advantages and privileges they enjoyed under Mubarak, then history will repeat for the Egyptian people could turn on Sisi just as quickly as they turned on his predecessors. Sisi’s honeymoon is over. His inauguration is not the beginning of the end for the Arab Spring, but rather the end of the beginning. Whether he’s able to implement the necessary reforms will be determined by weeks or perhaps months, but not by years. Rather than second guess Sisi, however, it’s crucial for Washington to back him at this tumultuous time. Egypt is not too big to fail, and the reverberations of Sisi failing would reverberate as significantly as Iran’s collapse in 1979.
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