What’s wrong with this picture?

After extending voting for a third day, the Egyptian authorities are claiming turnout of 46% of the 54 million eligible voters in the presidential election, with over 90%  voting for Field Marshall Sisi.  This would give him close to twice as many votes as Mohammed Morsi in 2012.

There are a lot of things wrong with this picture.  No one seems to believe the the turnout figure was even close to what the High Election Commission is claiming.  The third day of voting was testimony to popular disinterest in half the population.  The other half is genuinely enthusiastic, so 90% or more of whatever percentage voted is believable.  The trouble is it betrays the intimidatory atmosphere  in which this shame election took place. Media and government institutions lined up to salute the new autocrat, who has shown no inclination whatsoever to reach out to his antagonists or to include anyone but yes men and women in the new government he will appoint.  There is no parliament to approve or disapprove.  Sisi will presumably proceed with parliamentary elections, which won’t likely be any freer, fairer or more participatory than the presidential poll.

Nathan Brown concluded earlier this month:

if the country is transitioning to anything, it is not to a democracy in anything other than the most technical sense of the term.

What should the US do, or not do, about all this?  Frank Wisner, the extraordinarily capable former ambassador in Cairo, argues that we have no choice:  our security interests dictate that we unfreeze assistance and support Sisi, lest Egypt turn away from the strategic relationship with the US.  Frank suggests the autocracy won’t be as bad as last time around and the Egyptians will find a way to some decent modus vivendi.

I don’t agree.  Sisi has already made a mockery of democratic process.  This is restoration of military autocracy by electoral means.  No one should have any doubts about that.  Things are unlikely to move in the right direction of their own accord, but I’m not sure there is much we can do to turn things around.  Senator Leahy is insisting that some assistance remain suspended.  But Egypt is getting so much assistance from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which loathe the Muslim Brotherhood and have no problem with autocracy, that our contribution is a drop in the bucket.  They have also pledged to replace any cuts we make.

So what should we do?  First, we should not delude ourselves.  The July coup was a coup, and this election was a sham.  If US security interests require continued assistance, the Administration should convince the Congress and obtain relief from existing legislation.  Meanwhile, our diplomats (there is still no ambassador in Cairo, as Senate Republicans are holding up nominations) should be explaining clearly and in detail why we can’t welcome an election that met neither international standards nor the aspirations of something like half the Egyptian population, if not more.

Egypt has its own reasons to fight terrorists and maintain the peace treaty with Israel.  Cairo doesn’t need American pressure for our top immediate priorities to be fulfilled.  Washington should keep its eye on the longer-term objective of seeing Egypt escape the autocracy trap it has fallen into. If Sisi is half as smart as his supporters like to think, he’ll recognize quickly that the country’s economic, water and political problems require a more open and transparent approach to governance than what it had under Mubarak and Morsi.  If he fails to recognize that, he’ll follow them to the trash heap of Egyptian autocrats.


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