As the presidential campaigns gain momentum

10-05-2014 11:32 AM

Injy Samy- Sheri Abdel-Massih

It’s campaign season in full. The two-horse race to reach the topmost executive position in Egypt is at its most competitive, with each contender trying his hardest to persuade the public

he is he fittest for the job of Egypt’s president. The leftist Hamdeen Sabahi, who came out third in Egypt’s presidential elections in 2012, is running under the motto “We will go on with our dream”. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the retired army general who teamed up with the Egyptian people to overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) one-year rule in July 2013, is running under “Long Live Egypt”.
Till Watani went to press none of the candidates had announced the details of the platform on which he was running. Yet the electorate appears to be waiting for no specific platform to make up their minds. It is as Watani wrote last week, Egyptians are betting on character.
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Betting on character
The public appearances or media interviews aired by the candidates did nothing to shift public support in favour of Sisi or Sabahi. Those who had initially supported Sisi for his strong patriotic stances and firm, decisive, soft-spoken views were not disappointed in the interviews he gave; he displayed just these traits. And those who criticised him for his landmark strength which they fear would metamorphose into tyranny saw in him just that. Sabahi’s supporters applauded his youthful campaign which focuses on more freedoms and social justice, while those who do not intend to vote for him jeered at what they said were his rosy, unrealistic campaign pledges.
At the end of the day, the electorate remains divided between Sisi and Sabahi along the same, unchanged proportions; the recent public appearances or interviews merely served to confirm the hopes and the fears of the public vis-à-vis each candidate. 
A recent survey by the Egyptian polling centre Baseera placed the Sisi backers in the elections on 26-27 May at 72 per cent of those who intended to vote, who in turn amount to 85 per cent of the electorate. Another poll revealed that, among Egyptians aged 50 years and older, those who plan to vote for Sisi amount to 75 per cent. Among the less than 30-year-olds, however, the proportion is 69 per cent.
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Promises, promises
Sabahi supporters cheered as he said in a press conference in Assiut, Upper Egypt: “We don’t want Egypt to be described as an old, frail country,” but “we should have the right to a youthful, strong State.” He promised to revoke the protest law which, despite the fact that it compares favourably to similar laws in democratic countries, has come under fire from young activists in Egypt. 
In a mass election rally in the central Delta town of Mahalla, the textile capital of Egypt and one of the oldest hubs of workers## militancy in the country, Sabahi vowed to fulfil the revolution’s goals by developing the public sector, fighting for the rights of the martyrs## families and ending corruption. To cheers from supporters struggling to hold on to public sector jobs in a troubled textile industry, Sabahi vowed to boost investment in the public sector which has been heavily privatised in the last twenty years. 
Sabahi has vowed to focus on reforming the Egyptian State, maintaining security, kickstarting the economy and restoring social justice. He said he would reform and develop rural Egypt and Upper Egypt, Nile water usage, energy, health, education, and culture, and would empower women and persons with disability. He promised to fight unemployment by setting up a million projects within a year, and 5 million in the coming four years. When asked where the money would come from, he said he would make funds available through a plan that would shave billions of Egyptian Pounds off current expenditures, saving a staggering EGP326 billion. These lofty promises appear to many to be the idealism of a campaign that cannot win but that wants to build a support base for the future.
Difficult to fulfil
But perhaps the promise which drew the most enthusiasm among Sabahi’s supporters and the most ire among his critics has been his pledge to grant young people EGP40,000 and ten feddans of land each. His enthusiasts are ecstatic but the others ask where the land will come from, will it be agricultural or desert land, will it be provided with the necessary infrastructure, and how many will benefit of the offer? He also promised to open some 400 mines and quarries for the young people to work, which again begged the question of how feasible this would be.
Economic expert Mukhtar al-Sharif told Watani that, with no concrete platforms, the candidates’ promises are mere campaign pledges very difficult to realise under the conditions on the ground in Egypt. 
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Sisi: Nothing but hard work
But Sisi supporters say that’s where their candidate comes in strong; he never promised anything but hard work. Hard work to make livings, to reform the health and education sectors, to promote technical education, to bring the tourists back, and to set up new projects.  He said his first priority would be to bring back the stability lost to political violence and worker protest, and without which no target can be achieved. He vowed the MB would not find a place should he win, and accused them of banding with the violent, militant groups that seek to destroy Egypt. Yet he insisted on giving credit where it’s due. “It’s not I who finished off the MB; it’s you Egyptians who did that.” He was alluding, of course to the 33 million Egyptians who took to the streets on 30 June 2013, exactly one year on the MB President Muhammad Mursi in office, and demanded his overthrow. Sisi who was the little-known chief of Egypt’s army back then, sided with the people and Mursi was toppled. Small wonder then that Sisi gained the unconditional respect and appreciation of the masses in Egypt. Especially given that he has ever since taken strong, well-timed decisions and moves which always worked in the country’s favour, and has been the strong figure in the fight against the MB terrorism. 
Sisi makes no secret of the fact that Egypt’s myriad problems require dedication, hard work, and patience to be solved. “It has been frequently said that Sisi has no magic wand to solve Egypt’s problems,” he said. “But I do have a magic wand: you. The Egyptians are the wand that will work the magic.” 
Not before two years
The man widely expected to win the elections, Sisi, described the country’s rising population as one of its most pressing problems and hinted that he could implement tough austerity measures to revive Egypt##s ailing economy if elected. He also spoke about the importance of bolstering Egypt’s middle class which he described as the mainstay of Egyptian values and ethics, and battling corruption.
Sisi’s campaign spokesman said that the Field Marshal envisioned at least two years before Egyptians can feel a positive, tangible change in the quality of their everyday life. “It’s hard, but it’s realistic,” Gamal Deeb, a carpenter in his forties told Watani. “Sisi has made no promises of rosy days to come. That’s why I believe him. I know that’s true.”
Deeb was positively impressed with the interview Sisi gave the two private TV channels CBC and OnTV last Monday. “The man talked with responsibility and strength,” he said. “I appreciated his reply to [the anchor] Ibrahim Eissa’s comment about ‘the rule of the askar’. Sisi said it was unacceptable to apply to the Egyptian army the derogatory term historically used to brand foreign armies that occupied Egypt.”
But another young man posted on Facebook a remark to the full contrary. “Did Sisi think he was addressing cadets in a military academy?” he wrote. “Today he tells you it’s unacceptable to say askar, tomorrow he jails you for it. And how can he say protest is chaos? Did he forget that he has come through protest? Make no mistake about it, Sisi is a dictator-in-the-making.”
A secular at heart
Other bloggers, however, celebrated Sisi, especially his remarks about the thought of the MB and their insistence that they owned the ‘absolute truth’. “No group possesses a monopoly over religion,” Sisi said. One young male blogger picked the thread and made the following post: 
“When Sisi talks about the difference between the religion of the individual and that of the State, and about the freedom of an individual in how he or she practices their religion, or not practice it in the first place, it should make you listen. When he says that the State should not take sides with the followers of any specific religion, it makes you think. And when he talks of pluralism and mentions the smallest religious community today in Egypt, the Jews, and says he wishes to see them live and prosper and practise their religious rites as they did when he was a child, you’re sure you’re in front of a secularist even if he is not termed as such.”
The uncomplaining Copts
The Copts especially appreciated Sisi’s remarks when he was asked about the Coptic issue. Sisi said: “How can it be that the Copts suffer while they live in our midst? Every person holds his faith dear to his heart, this should be understood and respected.” He warmly praised the Copts saying: “We are fortunate to be living side by side with them. They love us and love the country; more than 50 churches were burned [at the hands of the MB], but the Copts never complained. They said that even if all their churches were burned they would willingly sacrifice them for the sake of Egypt.” In answer to a question about his meeting with the Pope and whether the Pope put before Sisi the Copts grievances, Sisi again insisted that there was not a word of complaint.
Already decided
All in all, comments on online news sites especially confirmed that Egyptians read their candidates’ character and decided accordingly. And apparently, they have been seeing what they already knew. Hence the constant proportions of those who supported each candidate. No indications of migration of votes has to date been spotted. The most widely-visited Egyptian news site set up a section to post visitors’ opinion of the interview Sisi held with CBC and OnTV. Not surprisingly, some 85 per cent of the some 350 comments posted in less than 20 hours supported Sisi. 
WATANI International
11 May 2014
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