The Public Will Decides Egypt’s Fate

The force of the public will—the consent of the governed—will ultimately define the nature of Egyptian public politics and governance, and who leads the government.

The millions of Egyptians who supported former Field Marshal Abdel Fatteh Sisi when he removed from office elected President Mohammad Morsi eleven months ago gave the impression that Sisi had overwhelming popular support for his actions and his candidacy. It remains unclear whether these sentiments among Egyptians were a genuine and lasting political statement or merely a short-lived form of mass hysteria that understandably sought the comforts of a secure and orderly life under a strongman.

The presidential election in a few days probably will not clarify this issue, because of the boycott by the Muslim Brotherhood and the authorities’ continued suppression measures against leftist, independent and progressive activists in Egypt.

We will get a more accurate picture of public political sentiments in Egypt only after President Sisi bears the weight and test of incumbency. The Egyptian public in the year ahead will judge how he behaves and what he delivers in response to the urgent need to provide real services and jobs—rather than emotional fantasies and cave-dwelling, feel-good hope—to tens of millions of needy Egyptians. This force of the public will—the consent of the governed—will ultimately define the nature of Egyptian public politics and governance, and who leads the government.

We must not be dazzled or disoriented by the state-sanctioned public political behavior that we can see, while opposition forces are banned or intimidated. Fortunately, we have a more accurate picture of political sentiments among Egyptians from polls that are conducted by respected local and foreign pollsters. Two in particular—by the Baseera organization in Egypt last year and the Pew Research Center last month—provide important insights into the two enduring realities that should shield us from being blinded by the craze of the moment: that significant pluralism in ideological sentiments defines Egyptian society, and that the public’s support for any single person or party will change significantly over time.

The Pew poll revealed some fascinating realities, including that last July’s military takeover is supported by a slender majority of 54%, while 43% oppose it. Abdel Fattah Sisi enjoys marginal majority approval rather than overwhelming popularity, receiving a favorable rating from 54% of Egyptians, while 45% view him unfavorably.

Former President Mohamed Morsi is rated favorably by 42% of those polled, a drop from the 53% from last year’s survey. About four-in-ten Egyptians continue to have a positive view of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been banned by the current government and named a terrorist group.

These swings in public sentiments are both a normal reflection of human nature and a welcomed novelty in the Arab region, where state-hijacked public sentiments for half a century more typically and repeatedly showed 90%+ support for the great leader—a farcical and demeaning legacy that mercifully has now been challenged throughout the region.

The ups-and-downs of pluralistic public political sentiments were also captured in a year-long Baseera poll of Egyptians from July 2012 to August 2013, during the Morsi presidency, and follow-up polls this year. These reaffirmed two crucial points: that Egyptians will judge their president by his conduct in office, and that the Muslim Brotherhood enjoys a solid core of support among around perhaps a quarter of the population.

It showed that public approval of Morsi declined from 76% to 32% during the year, when disapproval also rose from 9% to 61%; but 25% of Egyptians polled in June this year said they would vote again for Morsi. In November 2013, after Morsi rammed through his party’s constitutional declaration that solidified Muslim Brotherhood control of political power, public sentiment was 30% in favor and 37% against, with the rest unsure.

These and many other indicators emphatically remind us that Egyptians’ wide range of political views constantly evolve over time, in response to the conduct of politicians in office. It is fair to expect that President Sisi will be judged by his compatriots in the year ahead in the same manner that they judged the last president they elected.

The most important finding in the Baseera poll in my view was the one showing that 83% of respondents said they thought Egyptians were not afraid of the state. This means that most Egyptians have achieved a level of citizen empowerment and agency that is unprecedented in modern Arab history. They will express their views, and exercise their political rights to hold their government accountable.

Most worrying for any Egyptian leader today, though, is the finding in both these polls that a large majority of Egyptians—around 70% or so—feel their living conditions have worsened or they are worried by the direction of their country. This is the majority that counts when the time comes to judge the performance of any new government or president, because ordinary Egyptians have learned how to install and remove presidents and governments.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global