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Egypt and the strongman

Rainer Sollich / cdJanuary 17, 2014

The result of the constitutional referendum in Egypt strengthens the role of the military and widens the polarization of the political landscape, writes DW's Rainer Sollich.

Deutsche Welle Rainer Sollich
Image: DW/P. Henriksen

Egypt is likely the only country on Earth where praline packages, chocolate bars and even women's underwear sell like hotcakes whenever they're graced by the face of the country's incumbent defense minister.

It'd be easy to laugh off the curious cult status surrounding Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, but the backdrop is serious. After three years of chaos, countless violent mobs, thousands of deaths, the interim rule of the Muslim Brotherhood and its overthrow by the army, Egyptians long for stability. They want peace to return to their country. They want prospects of development. It's a sobering truth that the desire for participation, for real democracy, isn't the top priority for Egyptians faced with political chaos and a continuing economic downturn.

Curious cult status

The unambiguous "yes" on Egypt's constitutional referendum is an expression of this longing. And this longing is directed right at el-Sisi, who, behind the scenes, is in fact the current strong man in Cairo. His chances of ascending to the president's chair in the next round of elections are good.

Still, poll results left much to be desired. They showed that el-Sisi, amongst his many fans, has numerous opponents: Not only the Muslim Brotherhood, whose members have recently been lumped together and persecuted as "terrorists," but also numerous liberals and secular Egyptians who've endured the worst forms of repression. Egypt is, and remains, a divided nation.

The constitution strengthens the social standing of women and offers Christian minorities prospects that their interests will be better protected - two important and entirely pleasing points. The document also, however, codifies the strong position of the army: It is, and remains, a "state within a state," one which defies political control and is allowed to carry out military tribunals against citizens. There is reason to fear that human rights violations will remain on the agenda.

Far-reaching doesn't cut it

The real message of this referendum is therefore: A slim majority of Egyptians likely appear to be ready to faithfully place the country's future in the hands of the military for the next few years - even if that's to the detriment of their own freedoms. The rest of the nation feels like a loser.

The road to democracy has not necessarily been blocked off once and for all. But it will get longer and bumpier. Egypt appears once more to have arrived where it was in the era of ex-President Hosni Mubarak. In light of the strong ideological polarization within the population, it is still a pipe dream to think that a tightly run regime will lead to more stability. The criminalization of dissent can still unleash new violent excesses at any time.

Strong men are known for taking drastic measures. Anyone wanting to pacify and lead an extremely polarized society must also, however, be capable of building consensus as well as bridges of understanding.