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Egypt poll winner to face huge task of restoring stability

Canberra Times logo Canberra Times 25/05/2014 Ruth Pollard
Supporters of Egyptian ex-army chief and leading presidential candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. © AFP Supporters of Egyptian ex-army chief and leading presidential candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

A small group of Hamdeen Sabahi supporters stands on the footpath of the 6th of October Bridge near Cairo’s downtown district, holding posters urging a vote for the leftist politician, the only other candidate in a presidential election in which there is overwhelming support for his rival.

They are a tiny presence in a country where the favoured candidate, the former field marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is expected to win comfortably. Around them, Sisi’s image smiles benevolently from what seems like every light post and wall around the capital as posters and banners line the busy streets.

But the Egypt that Field Marshal Sisi is expected to inherit after the election on Monday and Tuesday is violently divided and deeply disappointed after an intense three years of revolution.

Signalling the enormity of the challenge facing the incoming president, a recent survey found 72 per cent of Egyptians are dissatisfied with the country’s direction, about the same proportion as in 2010, less than a year before the revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

The Pew Research Centre survey found 54 per cent of Egyptians have a positive opinion of Field Marshal Sisi, while Mr Sabahi is polling at 35 per cent, down from 48 per cent in 2013. It also found people were split on the military’s role in a country that has, until the short-lived presidency of Mohamed Mursi, only had military leaders, with 56 per cent saying the military is having a positive impact on the country and 45 per cent saying it is a negative influence.

The survey, which interviewed 1000 randomly selected people face-to-face in April, is in stark contrast to Egypt’s national polling agency, Baseera, which has Field Marshal Sisi polling at 72 per cent compared with Mr Sabahi’s 2 per cent.

In 2011 three in four Egyptians surveyed indicated they held a favourable view of the Muslim Brotherhood but in the current survey that figure is down to 38 per cent.

“This is a higher number than some might anticipate, given that over the last year the new government has banned the group and labelled it a terrorist organisation,” the Pew Centre noted.

Amnesty International and a group of eight Egyptian organisations separately released statements calling for an end to the widespread human rights abuses perpetrated in what they describe as a “police state”.

“The coming president should make a clean break with the policies of impunity that were a major feature of the Mubarak regime and all national administrations that followed January 25, 2011,” the Egyptian groups, including the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, wrote. 

Describing Egypt’s mismanagement under Mubarak and his successors, the groups said: “There is a heavy legacy of crimes and grave abuses that have continued in the past few years with no accountability for the perpetrators.”

They point to a serious increase in human rights violations after July 3, when the Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Mursi was forced from office.

“It is clear that the police state, which has no regard for the rule of law and human rights standards, is being reconstituted in a form more brutal and flawed than under Mubarak, all on the pretext of countering terrorism, administrations that followed the revolution of January 25, 2011.”

Since Mr Mursi’s downfall, Egypt had witnessed human rights abuses on an “unprecedented scale” including the deaths of more than 1400 people in protests and political violence, said Hassiba Hadj-Sahraoui, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International. “The country’s partners, such as the US and the European Union, should not use the elections as a cover to return to ‘business as usual’ with Egypt. Instead, there must be an acknowledgement of the scale and seriousness of the human rights violations committed in the last 10 months.”

More than 16,000 people now languish in detention as part of the authorities’ crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood movement and its supporters. Amnesty International says it has received new reports of torture and other ill-treatment in police stations and prisons, as well as deaths in custody.

“The organisation has also documented grossly unfair trials in which civilian courts have agreed to sentence hundreds of people to death, and military courts have tried journalists for criticising the army.”

H.A. Hellyer, a non-resident fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington and the Royal United Services Institute in London, says Egypt is heading towards a difficult summer. He predicts that support for Field Marshal Sisi will start to collapse as the day-to-day difficulties in Egypt slowly worsen.

"I don’t buy the opinion that people will keep on giving that level of support to Sisi – at some point he is going to have to deliver, the question is how long it will take for people to lose the infatuation,” Dr Hellyer said.

The ongoing terrorist attacks in Egypt – particularly in the capital Cairo – as well as the electricity crisis which has already led to multiple, daily blackouts in the Egyptian spring, will prove to be a huge challenge for the president, he said.

"As time goes on that is going to become even more pronounced … It won’t mean huge protests, but it will be a difficult summer, that is for sure."

He rejects the idea that the state is collapsing, and says even though it continues to weaken under the pressure of “the tumultuous period of the last three years” it is not failing.

"I see people making predictions about how things will crumble into pieces and I think they underestimate how it has crumbled over a long period of time, and despite this we are still here. Society works out how to manage."

Egyptian leftist presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi. © AFP Egyptian leftist presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi.

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