Sisi’s only rival to be president of Egypt vows he will fight on despite the odds
In a political career spanning five decades, Hamdeen Sabahi has been arrested 17 times. But his toughest moment may come tomorrow: Sabahi is the only challenger in Egypt‘s presidential election, a near-coronation that the former army chief, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, is expected to win by a landslide.
Sisi has the backing of the army’s high command, almost all media outlets and the business elite. At least 16,000 of his opponents are in jail, including the Islamists he ousted last summer and many secular leaders of the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak. In this climate, many feel that electoral opposition is futile.
But Sabahi does not. Many of the revolution’s gains may have been lost, but he feels that continued engagement in politics is the best way of preserving what remains. “We’re not going to stand aside and wait for the situation to be ideal,” he told the Observer. “We have to take part to make it ideal ourselves.”
Sabahi, 59, was a long-time member of the secular opposition under former dictators Anwar Sadat and Mubarak. He is a Nasserist, inspired by the socialist policies of Sadat’s predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser. The photographs of Nasser and of Sabahi’s father, a lowly farmer, perched on his bookshelf, along with a Naomi Klein book on his coffee table, give a sense of how Sabahi wants to be perceived.
A hero of the 2011 revolution, and the most successful leftist candidate in the 2012 presidential elections (he came an unexpected third), Sabahi says he is in this race to continue the same fight, “to give hope to the youth and to the poor who are demanding social justice, to the middle class that aspires for a civil state. To give them hope that they have a role in the country.”
Sabahi’s problem is that many of the Egyptians he describes do not want the role he envisages. Conservatives are tired after the three years of chaos that was sparked by the 2011 revolution. Others think he is betraying that revolution by granting what they see as a bogus process with a veneer of democracy – a feeling others who could have been candidates have echoed.
“I won’t take part in deceiving people into believing we have a democratic path when we don’t,” summarised Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fotouh, another frontrunner in 2012, after announcing that he would boycott Monday’s election.
Sabahi’s message to the boycotters is that they risk ceding all political space to the counter-revolution. “There is a battle for their own demands – but they’re abandoning it,” he warns. “The greatest thing we achieved from the two revolutions is that the Egyptian people [have begun to feel that they] are the decision-makers. Boycotting means that they no longer think they can make a decision.”
Sisi’s face looms from so many billboards in Cairo – and his opponent’s is seen on so few – that a visitor might assume that Sabahi isn’t bothering to campaign. In fact, the reverse is true. Sabahi cannot afford to hire a hoarding, but he has held rallies up and down the country, released a 130-page manifesto with specific details of subsidy, tax and police reform, and appeared in live interviews as often as he has been invited.
By contrast, Sisi has turned down televised debates. Perhaps wary of saying anything that would jeopardise his popularity, he will only appear in selected pre-recorded TV interviews and has not attended a single rally or press conference. His manifesto was not published until five days before the vote.
However, Sabahi is still reluctant to go for Sisi’s jugular – which is partly why some revolutionaries think he is a stooge for the regime. Instead, he prefers to criticise those around Sisi to make his point. “The other campaign represents a mixture,” says Sabahi. “It has people like us, but also it has people who belonged to the old [Mubarak] regime, which makes us sceptical about whether they will adopt policies from the Mubarak era.”
Along with most Egyptian leftists, Sabahi stands by his support for Sisi’s removal of President Mohamed Morsi last summer, even though it has led to a crackdown on dissent. “What happened on 30 June was a must,” he said of the day when many Egyptians marched against Morsi. “It was an actual popular uprising.”
Like Sisi, Sabahi would uphold a ban on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and keep its leaders in jail. He also blames Brotherhood leaders for a notorious massacre at a pro-Morsi protest camp last August – maintaining that police were right to clear the site, even if their methods were heavy-handed.
But unlike Sisi, Sabahi wants to repeal a draconian protest law that rights groups say severely cripples freedom of assembly. Sabahi said he would pardon the hundreds jailed under this law – including rank-and-file members of the Brotherhood as well as secular revolutionary leaders.
Even if he doesn’t win, Sabahi stressed, a respectable showing will give progressive politicians more space to push for such ideas in the future. “The revolution will have consolidated its allies,” he said. “We will have gained the legitimacy to establish the opposition in this country.”