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Sabahi offers alternative for Egypt

While Hamdeen Sabahi is unlikely to win Egypt’s presidential election against Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Sabahi could still surprise, and his postelection decisions will influence the direction of Egyptian politics.
Egypt's leftist presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi (L) greets supporters before a rally in Banha, northwest of Cairo May 7, 2014. Egyptians will vote in presidential elections on May 26 and 27.  REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany (EGYPT - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS) - RTR3O77Z

On the morning of May 15, Egyptians abroad started voting in the presidential elections at Egyptian embassies and consulates around the world. International voting stations are open for four days after which voting will take place in Egypt on May 26-27. Preliminary data from the Egyptian Foreign Ministry showed extensive participation in the voting at the embassies around the world, but a report released on May 16 said that, as of 2 p.m. that day, 100,000 persons had voted. This is a small number considering that 8 million Egyptians live abroad, but it is a reasonable figure considering that 305,000 expatriates voted in the first round of the 2012 presidential elections. It should be noted that the Higher Election Committee has decided not to allow voting by mail. 

Some have pointed to the rising fortunes of Hamdeen Sabahi, especially in electronic polls on the websites of several independent newspapers, and said that he may spring a surprise, like he did in the 2012 election. On the other hand, many think that Sabahi’s candidacy was pointless, especially when some early opinion polls indicated that Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will win with a vote of between 72% and 76%.

Others even questioned the seriousness of the elections itself and asserted that millions will boycott it. 

Over and above, there is still the “conspiracy theory” camp, which accuses Sabahi of choosing to run only to legitimize the elections. This group says that the elections will be like the security state referendums that Egypt has seen from the 1952 revolution until the revolution in January 2011.

In the 2012 presidential elections, Sabahi scored a huge achievement by winning nearly 5 million votes, or 21%, despite a campaign with very modest resources. His campaign relied on the fervor of revolutionary youths, who did not wish to return the country to the same obnoxious binary choice: NDP ruling party versus Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt has known that choice for decades before the January 25 Revolution.

Therefore, in 2012 many liberals and revolutionaries voted for Sabahi to prevent ending up with the Ahmed Shafiq-Mohammed Morsi duo in the runoff. However, that attempt failed, probably because the revolutionary vote was split between Sabahi, who came in third, and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who came in fourth. The latter had left the Muslim Brotherhood a few months before running in the elections.

Morsi and Shafiq went on to the runoff round, which Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood won after a well-financed campaign. Morsi was the Brotherhood’s “reserve” candidate and was not known to the Egyptians until a few months before the elections. He came to the scene as an alternative candidate to Khairat al-Shater, the second deputy to the Brotherhood’s supreme guide, who could not continue his candidacy due to legal barriers.

Why do analysts exclude Sabahi from the competition despite these impressive results and his long political history? While at university, Sabahi stood up to then-President Anwar al-Sadat in front of the cameras, and the viewers were shocked by Sabahi’s courage in the face of the head of state. He was one of the most important student leaders in the 1970s. He was a journalist, a trade unionist, a Nasserite leader and an opposition activist who has been jailed dozens of times. He had a strong presence as member of parliament for 10 years and then as one of the leaders of Kifaya, the National Association for Change and the People’s Parliament.

Sabahi was in the first rows of the January 2011 revolution, and made a short-lived electoral alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood. He performed very well in the 2012 presidential elections. He founded the Popular Current, and is one of the most important leaders of the National Salvation Front, which led the opposition against Morsi the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012 and 2013. Some say that analysts are excluding Sabahi because Sisi is the "man of the hour", or "candidate of necessity". They quote Sabahi himself saying a few months ago, “Sisi is the people's hero and has the best chance [of winning] if he runs for president.”

I have personally known Sabahi for about 10 years. We closely worked together in the Egyptian Campaign Against Inheritance of Power, the National Association for Change, the People’s Parliament and in the operating room of the People’s Parliament during the January 25 Revolution. I attest that Sabahi is among the best and most upright politicians I have ever met in Egypt, as well as among its most talented and rational, and who places the national interests of the country before all else. Thus in 2012, despite our sharp ideological disagreement, I did not hesitate to put a lot of effort as a volunteer to promote him as presidential candidate without even coordinating with him or his official campaign.

Months ago, I wrote an article advising Sisi not to run for president. When the presidential race started, the coordinator of the consultative group for Sabahi’s campaign contacted me to join the team. I appreciated this honorable offer but I preferred not to join any campaigns, formally or informally, to have more freedom to comment on the candidates’ programs and the electoral process.

Many activists initially considered the election a sham that should not be taken seriously and declared their intention to boycott it. There was a bigger bloc, which supported Sisi, and which downplayed Sabahi’s chances. The two blocs, despite their differences in opinion and approach, pointed to one conclusion: that the competition is not serious. But I gradually saw the two blocs shift. Many who had called for a boycott now declare their intention to vote for Sabahi, and many Sisi supporters have started showing signs of concern, which they tried to hide. They are worried of an upset in which Sabahi wins. I think this shift is in the public interest, whether during the elections or in the stages that follow.

So as long as Sabahi has a chance to win, we must seriously examine his program and the shape which the next phase will take if he wins.

Would the army accept Sabahi as president? What would Sisi’s role be then? Would Sabahi revive the Public Sector of the 1960s? What would be the future of the relations with the United States and the West? Would the peace treaty with Israel survive? And most importantly, can Sabahi lead Egypt out of its deep impasse, with all its cumulative challenges at the economic, political, social and cultural levels; the problem of the Nile waters; the stalled international relations; and the crisis of polarization and division that split Egyptians, let along terrorism and domestic protests?

If Sabahi wins, I expect the armed forces to accept the result. It may in fact breathe a sigh of relief because of the large, unbearable burden on it and to avoid the negative image it will be given if a president who came out of the army’s ranks fails to get Egypt out of its crisis and meet the huge unrealistic expectations that the Egyptians have placed in the savior "night in shining armor.”

Yet, the military accepting an elected president will depend on several factors. The most important being whether the next president can save the country economically. Does he have any credibility among Egypt’s economic backers, whether the Arab brothers or any other side, to sustain the economy and protect the country from sinking, even temporarily, until the economy recovers from internal sources?

Most analysts do not know that one of the main reasons why the army intervened to dislodge Morsi in July 2013 was because he failed to put the country on the path to avert bankruptcy, especially as the Muslim Brotherhood insisted on monopolizing power without enjoying a political majority, and because the Brotherhood rejected all initiatives to patch things up and stop the mass protests. Removing Morsi was the only way to produce a glimpse of light at the end of the dark economic tunnel.

Of course, the collapse in popular support for President Morsi confirmed that there was no choice but to intervene before the state collapsed, which I wrote about in several articles in December 2012 and January 2013. I predicted that the Muslim Brotherhood monopolizing everything and the political forces failing to come to an agreement would force the army to intervene before the point of no return is reached and chaos ensues. If that happens, no intervention from either the army or anyone else would help.

If Sabahi wins, he should probably ask Sisi to become prime minister, and that would hit several birds with one stone. It would take advantage of Sisi’s popularity and stabilize the ruling power. It would form a large national front of his supporters and opponents and achieve a higher degree of cooperation with the armed forces at a time filled with economic and security challenges, whether the dangers of terrorism or the need to quickly and urgently reform the deteriorating conditions. It would also take advantage of Sisi’s executive and administrative potential. He has accumulated a lot of experience, as evidenced by his steady rise, over decades, through the ranks of the army hierarchy.

Sabahi may at first try to revive the Public Sector and raise — in the absence of real resources — social benefits, subsidies for commodities and wages for state employees, in addition to other populist policies taken from the discourse of Egypt’s left, which has not yet understood the failed experiment of Gamal Abdel Nasser and the USSR. If Sabahi does the above he will be making a serious mistake but will shortly discover, hopefully soon enough, what his predecessors had experienced: The public sector, subsidies and an oversized and sagging government apparatus will eventually lead to an unstoppable hemorrhage, resulting in the depletion of the country’s resources until the state is completely paralyzed. This issue is the biggest challenge facing Sabahi or any president who tries to implement populist policies repeating mistakes of the past.

Furthermore, the presence of a prime minister like Sisi next to Sabahi will be useful because Sisi enjoys the flexibility of someone who is not bound by ideologies, but rather adopts solutions that have been shown to work and can succeed against challenges and problems by depending on prevailing circumstances and available resources. In any case, any incoming president must have the cooperation of all parties so that he can actually save the country.

Regarding external relations, Sabahi may try to create a rapprochement with Russia, China and even Europe at the expense of relations with the United States. Yet, he would be constrained by practical considerations to the needs of the Egyptian armed forces, where the decision to change the arming policies may take many years to implement.

He may also try to revive the idea of the “nonaligned bloc” and cooperate with Latin America, Asia and Africa with a focus on the socialist countries that are ideologically close to him. On the Arab level, the armed forces should support Sabahi, who has a Nasserist background, so that he can enjoy the confidence of a country like Saudi Arabia, whose relations with Egypt were troubled during Nasser’s rule. It should be noted that close cooperation between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries at this moment is crucial to prevent the entire region from sliding into civil wars and chaos, and cause the collapse of the current borders of these countries, along with the regional order.

We have heard that Sabahi intends to have a rapprochement with Iran and Turkey, which is a good thing and should happen in any case with any incoming president. However, it will be hampered by the extreme religious orientations of the leaders in Iran and Turkey.

Despite all the slogans, Sabahi will not abolish the peace treaty with Israel. He may propose some modifications, and practical circumstances may support this. In fact, there has been, on the ground, de facto changes to the arrangements to the treaty that allow the Egyptian army to deploy troops to fight terrorists in the Sinai Peninsula. The armed forces will certainly not encourage any president to go into failed military adventures.

If Sabahi does not win the presidency, he may lead the opposition, especially in preparation for the parliamentary elections, which will significantly impact the form of the next government and the legislation that can support, hinder — or even abort — badly needed institutional and structural reforms.

Sisi may consider appointing Sabahi as vice president, or to any leadership position in the state, to ensure that the political forces are together in a united front. However, this may weaken Sabahi’s position and his impact on opposition factions. Moreover, it would give credence to conspiracy theory assumptions that Sabahi was indeed a part of a plot to legitimize Sisi’s election in return for him getting a high-level state position. Also, making Sabahi prime minister would not suit his abilities, he would probably be better as head of parliament after the parliamentary elections should he choose to run.

In the final round of the 2012 elections, most Egyptians were dejected because they had to choose between two bad options and vote for one of two candidates who were both rejected by most Egyptians. But this time, a victory by either Sisi or Sabahi would be acceptable to the great majority of Egyptians, despite the exaggerations made by the ultra-supporters of this or that candidate. Both candidates are national figures, and neither is loyal to an international group such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which does not recognize the concept of homeland, or to an old regime that the Egyptians associate with failure and corruption and for which they made a revolution to dislodge.

I personally expect Sisi to win by more than 75% of the vote. I will explain the math in another article using the electoral simulator that we used before. But I found something surprising in the Egyptians’ voting behavior in the 2012 elections, which I only investigated with several friends and acquaintances. What I found makes any calculations based on opinion polls prone to possible changes on election day: During fateful moments, the Egyptian voter may change his decision as he is filling in the ballot! Perhaps this is due to religious convictions that make voting akin to testifying in court before God, requiring the person to look into his heart so that he does not do something wrong and provide false testimony or make an irresponsible choice when voting — literally at the last minute, when it comes to something with major consequences such as saving the country!

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