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Egypt's military coup leader won the rubber-stamp election — but it cost him badly

Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

Egypt's presidential election this week was supposed to seamlessly install retired General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who has already ruled since deposing the government in a military coup in July, as the legitimate civilian president. It will indeed install him, but it's looking like Sisi may not quite get the legitimacy he was hoping for. And that could be bad news for him and for him Egypt.

Sisi's vote results are right up there with former dictator Hosni Mubarak's sham returns: around 92 or 93 percent. In second place in many districts but just barely falling into third nationally, and I wish I were making this up, are voided ballots. The second-place human is Hamdeen Sabahi, a leftist revolutionary and the only real challenger (other candidates are boycotting the election as a sham), who won only 2.9 percent.

Analysts have a word for non-competitive elections in which 90-plus percent of the vote goes to a candidate who'd already seized power by force, and that word is coronation. Sisi was obviously not super worried about satisfying Western election observers — he did come to power in a military coup, after all — but he does need to be very concerned, and seems to be concerned, about what Egyptians think.

The problem for Sisi is that turnout has been abysmal, with less than half of eligible voters bothering to go out to the polls. Turnout among all eligible voters was just 46 percent. This is despite a protracted government campaign to get people to vote, precisely because the Sisi team knows that he needed better turnout in order to claim legitimacy.

This turnout figure may ultimately matter more than the share of Sisi's win. There was never any real doubt the election would rubber-stamp his transition from de facto military ruler to legal civilian president. But the turnout has been so low and the vote so uncompetitive that it publicly and embarrassingly mars Sisi's claim to popular legitimacy. That was how he got away with his coup in the first place, by convincing many Egyptians (especially his supporters) that he had an overwhelming popular mandate that justified illegally deposing the government. With a turnout so low it undermines his justification for seizing power, Sisi is coming into office with his legitimacy as a ruler already weakened. The rubber-stamp election succeeded procedurally, but not quite popularly.

Sisi, who commanded huge crowds of supporters in the months after his coup against the deeply unpopular Muslim Brotherhood government, had called for a national movement to rally to the polls: 75 percent turnout from eligible voters. If you listen to the rhetoric from the pro-Sisi movement, the general last year succeeded in rallying at least 20 million Egyptians to the streets in pro-coup demonstrations. While the demonstrations were huge, this number is far beyond plausible, but they may have believed their own rhetoric and anticipated a national rush to the polls.

When that didn't happen, and many Egyptians shrugged off the election, Sisi's government extended voting to a second day, which they made a public holiday, then to a third day. Egyptian state media, along with significant segments of the non-state media that nonetheless supports Sisi, openly urged Egyptians to rush to vote to give Sisi his higher turnout. The Associated Press reported a "frantic government effort" to "push up turnout," with the Sisi government ordering regional and municipal officials to do everything they could, from running free busses to threatening fines for people who don't vote. It wasn't enough to overcome voter apathy, though.

In another country, this might not be such a big deal. Sometimes turnout is low and it's embarrassing but not destabilizing. But Egypt is not another country. The last two governments have been toppled in part by popular unrest against their rule: Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and Mohammed Morsi in 2013 (yes, the military also exploited both to seize power, especially the latter). The interim military government between Mubarak and Morsi also struggled through, and was maybe overcome by, popular unrest.

If the Egyptian public turns against Sisi, he could go down too. And if there's a widespread impression that Sisi is not a fully legitimate leader because so few Egyptians voted for him, that sense of public rejection could be more likely to turn into another round of anti-government protests. Low turnout for sure does not guarantee that this will happen, but it makes the risk, already significant, a bit higher.

Political scientist Khalil al-Anani told the Wall Street Journal that Sisi's apparent dearth of public legitimacy may "push him to adopt more oppressive policies" to ensure the national order he can't win popularly. Cairo University's Marwa Fikry warned, "his tainted legitimacy will haunt him" and could weaken his claim to rule.

To be sure, it's true that the US also has historically low turnout, often around 55 percent, and no one worried about credibility so low that it could risk the stability of the government. But the US does not have a recent history of unpopular governments collapsing in violence and chaos. Egypt does, and Sisi's claim that his July 2013 military coup was the thing to return the nation to order is looking weaker all the time.