With the elevation of another general to the position of head of state after a flawed and problematic electoral process, Egypt has come full circle. Everything that was hoped for when the Mubarak regime was brought down by an unprecedented series of public protests in 2011 – democracy itself, the chance that Islamic, liberal and conservative political tendencies could reach a historic compromise, the dismantling of the swollen security state – now lies in the dust.
Instead a soldier in the tradition of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, although one without the stature or the prestige of at least the first two members of that trio, mounts the steps to the throne. There is no reason to doubt that former field marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi thinks he is doing his duty or that he is sure that without the strong hand he has promised Egypt would slide into irretrievable decline. With much assistance from government-controlled or influenced media, he has tried very hard during the campaign, and in the months before it as he edged toward declaring his candidacy, to project the image of a man called by destiny to be at the nation's helm.
But his claim, which is probably also an article of self-belief, to be the man a substantial majority of Egyptians passionately want as their leader has already been undermined by the manner of his election. It is not only that he faced no serious rival for the presidency, nor that he was able to draw deeply on both state and private resources to fund his campaign, nor that he could depend on a largely pliant media, the more critical elements having been suppressed or intimidated. It is that, in spite of all these advantages, he could not get the people into the polling booths.
They were cajoled, they were threatened, they were warned. Voting was extended into a third day. Yet, while the figures, which will probably in any case be disputed, say that he won 93.3% of the votes, this was on a turnout of 46%. That means that more than half of Egypt's voters did not want Mr Sisi, or did not want him enough to vote. Subtract from that the alienated supporters of the suppressed Muslim Brotherhood and you are still left with a very large number of Egyptians who will not welcome his presidency.
Adequate governments have been formed on a percentage of this kind in many countries, but is such a percentage enough for a man of destiny? A man who believes, according to a leaked recording, that Egyptians are soft and indulged and now "must work, night and day, without rest?"The first thing that Mr Sisi should revise, after a result like this, is his idea of himself. There is an element of vainglory in his character that was apparent from the moment he emerged as a national figure after President Mohamed Morsi named him as minister of defence. "The hand that harms any Egyptian must be cut," he declared at that time, before deciding that Mr Morsi had just such an evil hand and deposing him. He justified his action by saying that Mr Morsi had divided the country, had failed to be inclusive and had interpreted a narrow election victory as a mandate allowing him to change everything, charges in which there was some truth.
Mr Sisi is skirting the same dangers himself, and so, at one remove, are the western countries that, with some reservations, support him today, as they supported Mr Mubarak before him. If Mr Sisi can restrain his authoritarian impulses, row back on the repressive decrees he has in place, end the brutal policing that led to the deaths of more than 1,000 in largely peaceful demonstrations, reconcile secular liberals, abandon his terrorist rhetoric, reach some kind of truce with Brotherhood supporters, and resuscitate Egypt's economy without exploiting a long-suffering working class, he might in time go down as a solution, although a very imperfect one, to Egypt's problems. This is not a probable outcome, but it is a possible one. Egypt's allies, notably America, have some levers. They must not be supine or tokenist in their reactions.