On Sunday June 8, 2014, Egypt’s former defense minister, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, was inaugurated as the sixth president–a de facto pharaoh, though chosen by the people–of the oldest nation-state on earth.
As expected, Egyptians overwhelmingly voted May 26-28 to elect him to lead the country, which he as ruled indirectly since overthrowing his predecessor, Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), in the face of massive popular demand last July 3.
From the moment he ousted Morsi–who had turned a narrow electoral mandate in June 2012 into a brutal Islamist dictatorship almost overnight, alienating the vast majority of the country–the hugely popular El-Sissi has been ceaselessly attacked by a wide array of forces both at home and abroad.
These attacks have come not only from the Al Qaeda-allied MB and its Salafi allies in an increasingly violent insurgency that has so far claimed nearly 2,000 lives, but also from many Western journalists, Middle East experts, government officials and even key members of Congress, who have accused him of being just another military strong man who has usurped an elected leader.
Some even see him as holding onto a clandestine vision of religious rule of his own, and as a person far less popular than his cult of the personality suggests.
Though there are some elements of truth in this criticism, driving much of it is a combination of ideological blindness and ignorance (or denial) of the basic facts about both El-Sissi and his country, plus an idealistic demand for perfect democracy in a time of bloody upheaval in a land that has known essentially harsh, pharaonic-style rule for the past five millennia.
Here are three big things to know about the new president of the largest Arab country, which since 1979 has been America‘s closest ally in the Middle East after Israel.
1. Despite claims to the contrary, El-Sissi does have an electoral mandate.
With the MB and most Islamists, plus some of the original 2011 secular liberal activists boycotting the vote, about 35% of the population turned out to vote on May 26-27, in the midst of a searing heat wave.
This was roughly the same percentage for Morsi’s December 2012 Constitutional referendum, and for the vote on a de-Islamistized version of it that passed–by a far higher margin–in January 2014.
Still, this was not deemed enough, so balloting was extended to a third day on May 28 with the threat of fines for those who stayed away from the polls, an unusual move.
Egypt, like 21 other countries–including a number in Europe–has a compulsory voting law, though it is not usually enforced.
In the end, participation officially reached 47.5%–and a delegation of monitors from the European Parliament declared the election was run in a “democratic and free” manner, though it was “not necessarily fair,” due to self-censorship among some in the media.
This compares well with the 46% who turned out for the first round of presidential voting in May 2012, and the 52% in the second round that June—when there were no major boycotts, amid considerable suspense about who would win, while in this case, El-Sissi was a shoo-in.
A separate Election Observation Mission (EOM) from the European Union, while saying that the vote “fell short of constitutional principles,” stopped short of further criticism and added that the media atmosphere around it was “fair.”
Egypt’s election commission announced on June 3 that El-Sissi had won 96.91% of the votes, versus 3.09% for his only opponent, leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi.
El-Sissi gained 23.78 million votes, 10 million more than the 13 million won by Morsi in June 2012, in which he narrowly beat Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq–who later complained that the vote count was fixed.
Sabahi earned but 318,000 votes, fewer than the 1.4 million spoiled ballots cast.
El-Sissi, whom the late pre-election opinion polls put at 74%-to-86% approval (roughly twice that of President Barack Obama’s at home at present), could not campaign in person due to the ongoing violence, as well as at least two alleged plots on his life.
This was compounded by the famously quiet (and deeply private) field marshal’s failure to even issue a detailed electoral program, fueling yet more speculation about what he really intends to do in office.
For its part, the MB has dismissed the current election as “null and void.”
2. Despite excesses, El-Sissi’s war against the Islamists is ours as well.
Some have argued that Morsi’s removal and El-Sissi’s election prove the validity of Al Qaeda’s objection to the MB’s strategy of gaining power through democratic means.
Hence, more of their followers will turn to AQ and similar groups out of frustration with the results from the use of peaceful means—which they say has happened in Egypt.