It’s the same argument you hear wherever you go. You need only stroll through Egypt’s streets, sit at any sidewalk café, or drop in on any place the public frequents to find yourself embroiled in the same heated discussion.
With barely three weeks separating Egyptians from the day they head to the polls to choose their new president, small surprise that they seem to talk of little else.
Come 26 and 27 May and one of the two candidates running for the top post in the republic should win the vote. Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi is widely expected to sweep the vote; his stellar popularity would appear to easily seal the result. Or would it? His adversary, the leftist Hamdeen Sabahi is not so sure; he insists the result of the presidential two-horse race is no easy guess.
Campaigning for the presidential elections started in full force only yesterday, 3 May. Though Egyptians eagerly awaited the detailed platforms on which each of the candidates is running, and many claim they needed just that to make up their minds, the vast majority of the public appears to have already decided who the next president will be, based on who each is.
To his credit
Sisi has to his credit the momentous feat of siding with the Egyptian people against the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) regime. When Egyptians, a staggering 33 million of them, took to the streets on 30 June 2013 in what famously became known as the ‘30 June Revolution’ to demand the overthrow of the Islamist president Muhammad Mursi and his MB regime, it was Sisi who wrapped the success of the revolution. As head of the Egyptian Armed Forces then, he issued an ultimatum to Mursi to contain the public wrath or else the army would have to step in. It was not the first time Sisi took the initiative to persuade Mursi to respond to the people’s severe discontent with his rule, but Mursi never listened. On 3 July Sisi, flanked with the topmost figures of the various sectors of the Egyptian community, announced the Roadmap to Egypt’s Future which all those present had jointly drawn. No mention whatsoever was made of Mursi, but it was a fait accompli that he had been overthrown. The following day, 4 July, the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, Adli Mansour, was sworn in as interim president; in January 2014 Egyptians established a new Constitution described by analysts as the ‘best in Egypt’s history’; and now it is time for presidential elections, to be later followed by parliamentary elections. Come 2015 and Egypt should have accomplished its Roadmap and should be well positioned to launch a civil, democratic State of freedoms and human rights. Never mind that the MB have been waging a vicious war of terrorism against Egyptians, and that the price Egypt is paying for ousting the Islamists is a hefty one, Egyptians are unrepentant and hopeful about the future.
Standing up to the West
But Sisi’s credit does not end at his role in siding with the people against the MB.
Further enhancing his image as national saviour has been his standing up to the US and its EU allies who have been applying almost intolerable pressure on Egypt to accept and include the MB. To this end Egyptians have observed, aghast, the facts on the ground in their country falsified and twisted by the western media and political leaders to favour the MB. The MB were consistently depicted as the peaceful, non-violent, unarmed victims of police brutality, and the atrocious crimes and terrorism they have waged against the Egyptian people, police, and military have been systematically downplayed. The result was that the reconciliation touted by the West has been rejected by the wide majority of Egyptians who regard the MB as Egypt’s Nazis, and by the MB themselves who reject any conciliation unless they are reinstated to the former power they held. Amid this gruelling tug-of-war, Field Marshal Sisi worked to strengthen ties with Russia and was off to Moscow to sign a USD3 billion arms deal. He was backed in his run for presidency by no less that Vladimir Putin himself who told Sisi: “I know you have made a decision to run for the post of president of Egypt. It is a very responsible decision to assume this mission and responsibility for the fate of the Egyptian people.”
The next De Gaulle?
Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, born on 19 November 1954 in Cairo, was Commander-in-Chief of Egypt’s Armed Forces from August 2012 till March 2014, and served as Defence Minister during the same period of time. He graduated from the Egyptian Military Academy in 1977, served in the infantry and went on to become Director of the Military Intelligence. He is married and father of three sons and a daughter.
Field Marshal Sisi resigned his military career last March to run for the presidency. He informed the public of his decision in a short, emotional speech in which he said it was the last time he would address them in military uniform, a uniform he wore since he was a 15-year-old military cadet. He said he had taken on that uniform for the sake of Egypt and was giving it up for the sake of Egypt.
Sisi has been compared—favourably—to former Egyptian leaders Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anwar al-Sadat, both of whom were military men. Nasser is widely regarded as the leader who spearheaded the power of the people and the Arab nationalist movement, and Sadat was the hero who led Egypt to victory in the 1973 October War against Israel, and later made peace with Israel and regained Sinai.
Sisi’s run for president has also brought on comparisons with WWII French and American military heroes Charles De Gaulle and Dwight D. Eisenhower, who subsequently took office.
Renowned writer Gamal al-Ghitani believes that Egypt today is in dire need of great men who ignite the spirit of determination and challenge. The country is facing great perils and needs a charismatic leader like De Gaulle; Sisi can beyond doubt take on that role. His many supporters see in him a national leader and a capable, calculating decision maker who steps in at the nick of time.
“One of us”
Egypt’s presidential elections law stipulates that, if a candidate is not fielded by a political party, he should submit in order for his bid to be formalised some 25,000 notarised endorsements collected from at least 15 of Egypt’s 27 governorates. Once the door was open for bids, Sisi’s electoral campaign swiftly came up with 188,930 endorsements and announced to his supporters, who were still flocking to public notary offices to sign endorsements, that the door for Sisi endorsements would be closed since more than sufficient had been gathered and submitted to the Presidential Election Commission (PEC). It took Hamdeen Sabahi, who had run the 2012 elections and came out third, some three weeks to submit 31,555 notarised endorsements one day before the door for registration was closed.
But Sabahi was quick to note the election results were not about how many endorsements a candidate collected, it was about how convincing he was and how fair the elections would be. “Sisi has swept the endorsements, but this doesn’t mean he’ll sweep the vote,” Sabahi said.
The 60-year-old Sabahi is casting himself as “one of us”. He is a politician and journalist, a fervent believer in Nasserism, and a dedicated leftist totally at ease with people. He was born in the Delta fishing village of Baltim, the youngest of 11 siblings in a family where the father was a peasant. Sabahi studied Mass Communications at Cairo University and was active in politics ever since his undergraduate years. He never rigorously practiced journalism, but grew to be a political dissident during the Sadat and Mubarak years; he was in and out of prison several times for his political activity. In 1998 he founded the Karama (Dignity) political party which embraced Nasserist, socialist principles.
Question of political integrity
Sabahi was a major figure in the Arab Spring Revolution in Egypt in January 2011, and ran in the June 2012 presidential elections which Mursi won. Sabahi came out third, but was severely criticised for rushing to Tahrir Square to support the MB, allying himself with them to gain seats in Parliament, then turning against them. Many saw in this a lack of political integrity, but Sabahi explained it off as a response to MB policies. It definitely lost him substantial public support, however.
Sabahi has said that he will prioritise the battle against social inequality, rejuvenate the public sector, fight privatisation and defend the ideals of the 25 January and 30 June revolutions, revoke the new protest law, release young political activists from prison, and fight the reinstatement in office of Mubarak’s “corrupt elite”. On several occasions he said he wished to be the Lula da Silva of Egypt—a reference to Brazil’s leftist president from 2002 to 2011. Yet support for Sabahi stands in the main part not on his political or economic views, but on the fact that most Sisi opponents harbour a wariness of his military background and fear that the sweeping public affection he enjoys would work to idolise him.
Who supports who
Given that four Islamists had run in the presidential elections in 2012 which the MB Muhammad Mursi won by a wafer thin margin and was overthrown exactly one year after he was sworn in, it is conspicuous that the 2014 elections include no Islamists contenders. Not that MB members are entitled to run; the MB was designated a terrorist group last December and a court ruling on 15 April banned its members from contending elections.
The 2014 elections have been criticised for being a two-horse race; several analysts have compared it unfavourably to the 2012 elections in which 13 candidates ran and even the first multi-candidate elections held in 2005 which included 10 contenders. Muhammad Samy, head of the Karama Party exclaimed that Egypt’s more than 80 political parties fielded not one candidate. Sabahi is running as an independent.
The common belief is that, given the wide public support for Sisi, anyone running against him is sure to lose. Some 27 political parties, 13 political movements, three Islamic groups, and two professional syndicates have so far declared their support for Sisi; while 14 parties, four political movements and two Islamic ones have rejected his bid. Only two political parties have announced they support Sabahi. In the middle ground stand several parties that embraced no specific position but left it to their members to choose who to support. In several instances, as in case of the liberal al-Misriyeen al-Ahrar (The Free Egyptians) party and the Egyptian Democratic Social Party, this was because the party itself was divided over who to support. But another liberal party, al-Mu’tammar, decided to strongly rally behind Sisi even before his electoral platform was publicised. “We are certain Sisi’s platform will be geared to the development and prosperity of Egyptians,” said Dalia Magdy, the party’s media officer.
Political analyst Basheer Abdel-Fattah has no qualms about there being only two contenders. “The number of candidates carries no real weight,” he told Watani, “as long as the elections are free and fair, and the State is not biased towards any of the candidates.” Abdel-Fattah believes Sisi is backed by the silent majority of Egyptians, famously known as hizb al-kanaba, literally the couch party, as well as Mubarak supporters, the Copts and the Church, and those of mature age. “Sabahi is closer to the young people on the street, who see in him the ardent revolutionary.”
Not so, the writer and journalist Salah Eissa believes. “The conflict is not age-based,” he says. “The young revolutionary activists who are so vocal in their criticism of Sisi and their support of Sabahi do not represent the wider sector of mainstream Egyptian youth. In fact, if we go by several media indicators, there appears to be a wide gap between the opinions they hold and those held by young Egyptian peasants and workers, say.”
Egypt’s next president will need very strong public backing to be able to take some very difficult decisions the country needs, Eissa says, and Sisi has a strong record as a capable decision maker.
Claims that State and military institutions are standing in full force behind Sisi have been strongly denied. State media is strictly committed to offering both candidates equal space, and any display of bias even if inadvertent is not tolerated. A young man who sang a well-known patriotic song in which he inserted the name of Sisi in a formal event last week was referred to an official probe.
Monitoring the polls
As to the integrity of the polling, the PEC is busy approving monitors for the elections. According to PEC secretary-general Abdel-Aziz Salman, and until Watani went to press this week, 97 of 116 Egyptian NGOs that had applied to monitor the elections qualified, as have 13 out of 18 Egyptian TV channels and 6 of 13 foreign NGOs, among them the Carter Centre.
4 May 2014