Oct 10th 2015
MOST generals who seize power promise to return their country swiftly to the state of democratic civilian rule from which it lapsed owing to the misdemeanours of venal or incompetent politicians. Often, alas, no suitable civilian can be found. So the general swaps his uniform for a business suit, crushes the opposition and proceeds to establish a pliant parliament. Egypt’s strongman, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, is treading this familiar path. But he will do nothing to resolve Egypt’s many problems; he may lead his country into its next crisis.
As head of Egypt’s armed forces, Mr Sisi removed the elected Islamist president, Muhammad Morsi, in a coup in 2013. Less than a year later, having passed a new constitution, he resigned from all his military roles and won the presidency with 97% of the vote in an election that none of the main opposition parties contested. Since then he has run the country by decree (the lower house was dissolved in 2012 and the upper one in 2013). Mr Sisi has stamped on the press as well as foreign and domestic NGOs. And he has banned Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, arrested thousands of its supporters, killed hundreds of its demonstrators and sentenced its leaders to death (the executions have not yet been carried out, and may never be).
Mr Sisi is now holding elections for a new unicameral parliament. The first of two rounds of voting starts on October 18th. The Brothers, who won 47% of the seats in 2011, cannot contest the vote; the other main Islamist party, al-Nour, which won 24% of the seats, has become an ally of Mr Sisi’s. Liberal parties have split and bickered and many of their leaders have gone into exile or been hounded out of politics. Weak election-monitoring means that only the rich and politically well-connected are likely to win seats.
Thus no one expects this legislature to be anything more than a figleaf (see article); among its first acts will be to endorse most of the emergency “anti-terrorist” powers the executive has awarded itself to deal with the Muslim Brothers and other graver threats, such as the jihadist insurgency in Sinai. There will doubtless be mild disagreement between the legislature and the president, but Mr Sisi will reign all but supreme.
Deal with the real problems
Many Egyptians will be content enough. As they witness chaos and bloodletting in Syria and Libya, Mr Sisi’s rule may not seem too bad. There is certainly little appetite for a return to the shambolic administration of Mr Morsi: Mr Sisi is being bankrolled by oil-rich Gulf monarchies, relations with Israel have again become close and as Mr Sisi flirts with Russia, America and Europe are re-embracing him.
As the most populous Arab state, sitting astride the Suez Canal, Egypt matters greatly. The world has to deal with the flawed government it finds. But it should still be urging Mr Sisi to change. The simple fact, demonstrated time and again, is that generals are not very good at running governments. So far, Mr Sisi is no exception.
Politically he is far harsher than he needs to be, and harsher than the previous ex-military strongman, Hosni Mubarak. Mr Sisi risks radicalising hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people—for a start, consider the 13m who voted for Mr Morsi. A wiser man than Mr Sisi would be seeking an accommodation with at least parts of the Brotherhood, not making one impossible. Instead of encouraging greater moderation, America’s resumption of military aid in March sent the wrong signal.
Economically, Mr Sisi favours a big state and dubious grand projects: a new city far out in the desert, say, or a new branch of the Suez Canal. He is also buying expensive weapons, including two French helicopter carriers, of little use in Sinai though handy for intervention in, say, Libya or Yemen. Egypt’s official unemployment rate stands at 12.7% (it is more like 35% for the under-25s, who make up half the population). The country is running huge budget and current-account deficits. Investors find its courts stacked against them. The bureaucracy is unaccountable and sclerotic. With oil at $46 a barrel, Egypt’s friends in the Gulf may struggle to bail Mr Sisi out for ever.
Mr Sisi needs to trust his people more, economically and politically. He should empower small firms and let society bloom, not run everything from the top. As Mr Mubarak discovered, the people will sooner or later revolt against the chain of command—even when the top man has put on a suit.