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Egypt Isn’t Stable
Former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is sure to win the upcoming presidential elections. But a new poll shows that he will be taking the helm of a profoundly divided nation.
There is little drama to the upcoming Egyptian presidential election, which will take place on May 26 and 27. Former Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is certain to emerge victorious. While international observers and his Islamist rivals will question the legitimacy of his victory, Sisi will emerge from the vote in control of the Egyptian state.
Much of the media coverage from Egypt since Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were pushed out of power nearly a year ago has focused on Egypt’s sometimes virulent nationalism and the emerging cult of personality around Sisi. Tired of instability, frustrated with a poor economy, and experiencing buyer’s remorse from electing Islamists, the Egyptian people — so the argument goes — turned to Sisi and the military to save them from extremism, restore order, and bring back the optimism that followed the toppling of Hosni Mubarak.
However, a new Pew Research Center survey — conducted between April 10 and April 29 among a representative sample of 1,000 randomly selected Egyptians — shows that once he settles into the presidency, Sisi will confront a wide array of challenges. First, the new regime may not be as popular as many people think: 54 percent of Egyptians say they have a favorable view of Sisi, while 45 percent view him unfavorably — not a bad rating for a national leader, but not the kind of numbers that suggest Egypt is unanimously rallying around a national hero either. Public opinion about last July’s military removal of Morsi is almost identical: 54 percent say they favor it, while 43 percent oppose it. Again, it’s more than half, but not overwhelming.
Second, Egyptians’ mood about the overall state of their country is grim. Seventy-two percent say things in Egypt are headed in the wrong direction, while just 24 percent are satisfied with the way things are going. This is a big change from 2011, when, in a poll conducted weeks after the overthrow of Mubarak, 65 percent were satisfied with the country’s direction. Instead, the public mood today looks a lot like it did in the final two years of the Mubarak era, when two-thirds or more of Egyptians were unhappy with the state of the country.
A major reason for this discontent is the poor economy. Roughly three in four Egyptians (76 percent) say the economy is in bad shape, while just 21 percent describe the economic situation as good. Optimism about the economy spiked in 2011, as Egyptians temporarily grew hopeful that Mubarak’s ouster would also serve as an antidote to widespread poverty and joblessness. In the spring of 2011, 56 percent of Egyptians said they expected the economy to improve in the coming 12 months.
Today, Egyptians are less optimistic that the new government will bring new economic opportunities. Just 31 percent of Egyptians believe the country’s economic situation will improve in the next 12 months, while 35 percent expect it to worsen and 31 percent predict it will stay the same.
The Muslim Brotherhood — which is down, but hardly out — presents a third challenge for Sisi. Clearly, Morsi’s tumultuous presidency led to conflict and instability that worried many Egyptians, and the Brotherhood’s image has suffered significantly over the last year. Back in 2011, just after the revolution, three-quarters of Egyptians had a favorable opinion of the Muslim Brotherhood, and even in the spring of 2013 a solid majority (63 percent) still expressed a positive view. In the new survey, however, just 38 percent give the Brotherhood a positive rating.
Still, the fact that roughly four in 10 Egyptians continue to have a favorable opinion of the Islamist organization, which the Egyptian state has declared a terrorist group, means that Sisi will come to office facing significant opposition to his rule. In some ways, the Brotherhood’s resilience shouldn’t be a surprise: The organization has been around for nearly nine decades and has survived varying levels of repression over time, adapting and transforming itself as the political context changes. Egypt remains a country where many Islamist positions enjoy a great deal of acceptance, providing groups like the Brotherhood an ongoing base of support.
A fourth challenge for Sisi is that the new regime’s institutional base of support — the military — is not as popular as it once was. During the 18 days of protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that ultimately led to Mubarak’s downfall, a familiar chant was "the Army and the people are one hand." And in the initial months of the post-Mubarak era, nearly nine in 10 Egyptians (88 percent) said the military was having a good impact on the country. In 2013’s survey, roughly three in four still had a positive view of the military. But in the current poll, only 56 percent say the military is having a good influence on the country — still a majority, but a narrow and shrinking one.
In the heady days of 2011, the major players who helped topple Mubarak basked in the warm glow of public approval. The military, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the youth-led April 6 movement all received overwhelmingly positive ratings. However, this unity proved fleeting, as Egyptians grappled with designing a new constitution and tackling the country’s myriad problems. As the new survey highlights, the past year has been especially damaging to the image of these major organizations.
But perhaps even more ominously, Egyptians have also grown somewhat less enthusiastic about democracy itself. They still want a democratic government, but they are a little less likely now to say it is preferable to other types of government: 59 percent of Egyptians believe democracy is better than any alternative, down from 66 percent in 2013 and 71 percent in 2011. The importance Egyptians attach to free elections, free speech, and a free press has also ebbed: The share of the public that says it is very important to hold honest elections with a choice of at least two political parties has dropped from 56 percent in 2013 to 45 percent today. And for the first time since we started asking the question in 2011, Egyptians place a higher priority on having a stable government (54 percent) than on having a democratic one (44 percent).
In some ways, the desire for stability presents an opportunity for Sisi — the strongman brought in to impose order on a country that at times seems to be spinning out of control. But he doesn’t come into office with the wide base of support some imagine. And it’s worth remembering that Mubarak and Morsi looked pretty strong at times too.