Sabahi running for president to protect the Egyptian revolution

In an interview with As-Safir, Egyptian presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi speaks about the upcoming elections, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the Egyptian state’s domestic and regional role.

al-monitor Leftist leader Hamdeen Sabahi (center) arrives at the funeral prayers of prominent Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm at Al-Hussein mosque in Cairo, Dec. 3, 2013. Photo by REUTERS.

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opposition, january 25 revolution, hamdeen sabahi, gulf states, elections, egypt, abdel fattah al-sisi

Feb 21, 2014

Hamdeen Sabahi, an Egyptian politician who has been named as a potential candidate for the presidential elections, has confirmed that he decided to run to achieve the objectives of the January 25 Revolution. In an interview with As-Safir, Sabahi said that he gave in to pressures to run from the revolutionary youth, who believed that his absence from the elections would contribute to the continuation of the current situation. Egypt is witnessing a decline in political freedoms and a return to a security grip that is greater than the one present during the reign of former President Hosni Mubarak.

Sabahi said there is an open dialogue with a number of political forces to coordinate before the official start of the election battle. He added that a meeting will be held with the former presidential candidate Khaled Ali to discuss the level of available consensus on a single candidate to represent the revolutionary forces.

Text of the interview:

As-Safir:  How do you assess the previous experience of presidential elections, and where do you put yourself in it?

Sabahi:  The most important yield of the elections is that we have successfully provided a vision that turns the revolution from slogans on the ground to enforceable policies. This means that we have widely succeeded in providing the country with a revolutionary vision that answers questions about ways to bring about a democratic society and ways to achieve social justice and restore Egypt's role in the world Arab. The Egyptian scene was divided between a candidate for the old state and another for the Muslim Brotherhood, but the previous elections have proved that the majority of Egyptians were outside of this polarization. In the end, if we calculate the votes of candidates who presented themselves in the name of the revolution, we find that we got more votes than the old state and the Brotherhood.

As-Safir: What do you think about the upcoming electoral battle?

Sabahi: This time around, the elections are very difficult for reasons including the fact that all candidates dreaming of having the revolution reach power were riding the waves of Jan. 25. But there is a widespread feeling of sickness and fatigue among the people, and the state has become a need in itself. The previous climate used to say that there was a revolution entitled to govern, given the popular hope in this revolution. But this is not the case this time, and part of this is due to the failure of the Brotherhood, which brought about doubts as to whether those belonging to the revolution are able to govern or not. Even after this group fell, it turned into a tool of intimidation, which made people tend toward the traditional state and its apparatuses, such as the police and armed forces, to cope with this tool.

As-Safir: On the procedural level, to what extent do you think that there are real elections?

Sabahi: Now the state is clearly offering a candidate, and there is an atmosphere that everyone has to support this candidate. This is detrimental to the country and its natural development, hence the importance of having other candidates in the elections. The situation is partly the result of popular fear of a Brotherhood backlash, which makes people tend toward military force that is capable of confronting terrorism. We will test the extent of awareness, which erupted twice in the last three years, of the need to overcome the idea of the single state candidate. Supporting a candidate who has not announced his candidacy yet is not a useful idea and does not serve the concept of the people being the master, not the apparatus of the state.

As-Safir: Wouldn’t it have been better to announce your candidacy after a clear consensus between the forces of the revolution?

Sabahi: Consensus is important of course, but it can happen at any time. I have announced my candidacy in light of objective factors. The most important is that there’s a sense that no one is presenting himself, and that there’s a dearth of representatives who want the revolution to be represented in the state.

Many youths think that if I, specifically, do not run, they will lose the opportunity to express the aspirations of the revolution and its goals. In the end, I announced my candidacy based on a personal decision and on an organizational decision by the Karama Party and the Popular Trend, and we confirmed that we are in an open dialogue, which may reach a result.

As-Safir: Who are the parties to this dialogue?

Sabahi: So far, no one has presented himself except (former presidential candidate) Khalid Ali, in addition to parties such as the Socialist Alliance, which is said to likely support me. Otherwise, we have opened a dialogue with the Egyptian Democratic Party and the Free Egyptians Party, and we are awaiting for the Constitution Party to end some organizational matters. Overall, I think that if we want a candidate who represents this revolution, we have to think things over well, because we are facing a strong candidate who is supported by the state and who has a large popular support. On the other hand, we said months ago during the “candidate of the revolution” campaign that we want a dialogue on the presidential election, but no one responded. The partners in the National Salvation Front either want to support Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi or don’t want to support me. The Tajamo Party, for example, announced that it will support Sisi. … So we succeeded in Tahrir Square and on June 30, but then we failed to agree.

As-Safir: What about the dialogue with the revolutionary and youth movements?

Sabahi: Although there is a wide disparity in some areas, we are seeking to overcome the differences, especially as we have close positions about social justice and democratic construction and restoring Egypt’s deserved regional role. I disagree with the slogan “down with military rule,” and I see it as a loud expression of the proper duty of criticizing the practices of the military council, but I don’t think this matter should stand between us.

As-Safir: The period of the rule of ousted President Mohammed Morsi showed that some state agencies, especially the security agencies, didn’t deal with him as president but as a security target. To what extent do you see that the state apparatus is ready to cooperate with a president from outside the traditional circles?

Sabahi: Egypt’s state apparatus is old and needs to be developed and revolutionized in the real sense, but not by throwing it away and putting forward others not qualified to manage a country like Egypt. This is an important part of the political challenge. How can you manage the state in a democratic way that serves the people, not vice versa? Having a philosophy and a political will to achieve this development in the state is part of the political success. Morsi’s problem is not that he didn’t understand the need to develop the state, but that he acted in accordance with the concept that the state should be seized for the benefit of the [Muslim Brotherhood]. And his goal was to undermine the state, not strengthen it. The battle is extremely difficult, but not impossible, especially with the presence of competent cadres within the state apparatus who are suffering from marginalization. This is different than seeking to weaken the state for the benefit of a particular group, which put [Morsi] in a confrontation with administrative bodies.

As-Safir: Do you accept to be president alongside a strong and immune secretary of defense?

Sabahi: I believe that it’s important for the Egyptian army to be strong, for external and internal reasons, and [I believe] in the army’s importance in building the Egyptian state. That has been its historic role since the era of Muhammad Ali. The Egyptian army today gained a revolutionary cachet when it sided with the people during the revolutions on Jan. 25 and June 30. This means that [the army] should not be a party to political enticements nor should it present itself as a ruler, but rather as a guardian and protector. From my point of view, the army entering the political game harms the armed forces. We all know that the next president can only succeed if he achieves the hopes of the people, and in light of the Egyptians’ revolutionary expectations and the [state’s] limited resources, he is unlikely to succeed in all expectations. … In this case, what would happen if the people said to the president — who came from the army — that he failed and decide to confront him? This will of course put the army at risk, which we don’t want. I would prefer if Sisi, who has a large deserved popularity, would remain at the head of the armed forces and not take part in the political game. If I win the presidential election, generally, I would prefer to deal with strong officials, and I see no objection to dealing with a strong minister of defense, especially since I’m trying to strengthen the Egyptian army.

As-Safir: You were a key partner in June 30. … After seven months since Morsi's ouster, how do you see the situation that we have reached?

Sabahi: I am satisfied with the completion of the constitution and that the people approved it. … And here we are entering the stage of the presidential election. With regard to time, the transitional administration was successful. At the political level, the transitional authority has been politically competent, and the proof is the disintegration of the “June 30 coalition.” It was a big mistake to issue the law on demonstrations, which doesn’t respect the rights of the Egyptians and was used to put the revolution’s youth in prison. The situation that has put the revolution’s youth in prison and Mubarak’s corrupt figures outside should serve as a wake-up call of the political failure. It is true that the terrorism threat is huge and confrontation is a must — and this requires the support of the police and the army — but arresting innocent citizens under the “anti-terrorism” banner is excessive security and a return to the old face of Egyptian police.

On the social level, adopting the minimum wage decision may have been the first fruit of the Egyptian revolution, which has been going on for three years. But so far, the decision has not been applied in a clear way. … When we see the workers protesting, it indicates that this rule is not a revolutionary authority. A revolutionary authority should be clearly with the workers.

Perhaps this is why young people have told me that if I don’t run, these policies that come at the expense of freedom and misuse of power will continue.

As-Safir: We are in the midst of an extraordinary regional situation. There are permanent threats of military intervention in Syria. There are the issues of Iran, the Gulf, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. … Do you see that Egypt can still play a role in foreign policy? And how?

Sabahi: Egypt, as I understand it, is the heart of the Arab nation and its deserved leader if it pays the dues of leadership and is entrusted with the responsibility to lead. The best role for Egypt is to be consistent with the facts of geography and history. There is no future for us without a revived Arab role to interact with the [Arab] nation. To be able to perform this role, we need to recover internally. I certainly don’t call Egypt’s Arab role as foreign policy, but Arab policy. Playing a role abroad requires us to first build a strong state — whether this role is on the Arab or African level, or at the level of developing nations.

First, Egypt’s role in the Palestinian issue should be reconsidered. Egypt’s role should be based on the fact that Israel is an enemy that seeks to expand and rape the Palestinian territories, and that this fact doesn’t change with time. We need an Egyptian role to face the harsh Israeli policies manifested in the US-sponsored negotiations, which will only lead to more oppression, theft and expansion. Part of this is to play a crucial role in completing the reconciliation in Palestine, which is exposing [Palestine] to internal fighting or to new Israeli incursions.

At the Syrian level, any division of Syrian territory would be a direct strike at Egypt’s security. Any external aggression on Syria would be a direct aggression against Egypt. Egypt’s proper position is to stand firmly with Syria against any foreign aggression. And Egypt must say in a correct way that it stands with the Syrian people and their choices, and it is with the unity of the land, people and state. Egypt must clearly stand against any shedding of Syrian blood — whether by the regime or by the armed groups, which abducted the Syrian people’s project and turned it into a continuous crime via foreign funding and arming. [Those groups] are carrying out regional agendas at the expense of Syria and the Syrian people.

In the end, there is no future for Syria without a Syrian state. … If the Syrian state breaks, then Syria will also break, and that’s the biggest danger in my opinion. The current regime, regardless of [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad, has no future if it doesn’t give clear freedoms to the people.

Regarding Iran and Turkey, there is a natural Arab-Iranian-Turkish triangle, representing the heart of the Islamic world. And this triangle has two options, either a common vision that takes into account the common interests of its sides, or continuous rivalry. … I’m definitely with the first option. Erdogan, with his abhorrent remarks, isn’t preparing the atmosphere for a relationship with Turkey. Regarding Iran, I think that any Arab attrition [war] with Iran is in the interest of neither party. Here appears the supposed Egyptian role in reformulating Arab relations with Iran, by reassuring the legitimate concerns of the Gulf regarding the expansion of Iranian influence.

In general, politics in Egypt cannot remain as it was. That’s what weakened Egypt’s role in the region. We don’t have the same cachet we had in the 1960s. … President Abdel Nasser of Egypt created Egypt’s leadership position by means of proper policies, solidarity and vision, not by providing funding to anyone. That made Egypt the leader of the Arab nation, and Abdel Nasser was the leader of this nation.

As-Safir: What about the Gulf states, which have given economic aid to Egypt after Morsi’s ouster? Hasn't this created political dependency on these countries?

Sabahi: Egypt will not live on aid from anyone, even from our Arab brothers. This [aid] may be doses that are due to a country that has long be exhausted, but we can rely on our own resources, and with real relationships with Arab nationd. We appreciate this assistance, but I don’t call them gifts. What pushed the Gulf to Egypt is an expression of these countries’ interests, because Egypt … by confronting the Muslim Brotherhood has reduced the danger not only to the Egyptian state but also to Arab regimes, including those in the Gulf. So they helped Egypt for brotherly considerations, which we respect. But they are also fighting a battle before it reaches their land.

As-Safir: Everyone is talking about social justice. … Why do you expect Egyptians to see your program differently?

Sabahi: I say that when the political programs are similar, we have to believe the program that resembles its owner. I have a clear vision of social justice stemming from my personal profile. Of course, the idea of ​​social justice is a commodity that’s in vogue. I believe that when I talk about social justice, it is enough that I am the son of the poor of this country and have paid for my choices in prison. So I think that the [people] will believe me when I talk about social justice more than they will believe others.

I believe that achieving social justice requires clear bias toward the poor. And I consider myself their tool to achieve their interests. That was reflected in my previous electoral program, which was developed after the election. For example, we organized a conference titled “the alternative economy,” which identified policies that seek to achieve real economic independence and social justice for the poor. We have detailed steps and the political will for it, as it seeks to form a broad middle class in Egypt that enables society to find balance and develop. This is of course inspired by the experience of Abdel Nasser, who succeeded in forming a middle class that was not present before.

As-Safir: But this means that some social classes will resist you as they resisted Abdel Nasser.

Sabahi: Of course, this is their right. They may resist me by any means as long as they do it peacefully. And I, too, will confront them of course, but not in the sense of arbitrary measures against them. My project doesn’t keep the private sector away from economic development, but this doesn’t mean that the private sector can take over public resources. We will enable the private sector. But we will not allow investments to be monopolized by a marriage between the government and capital. Those who accept to be capitalists who are not hated by the poor will be with me, and those who want isolation from society and wish to limit themselves to cronies will not be with me.

As-Safir: In this battle, a number of your supporters left you. … Did that weaken your position?

Sabahi: I respect them because they have logic in their choice, which is based on the desire to face terrorism. I don’t think that facing the Muslim Brotherhood should be limited to the security dimension. The battle is cultural, social and economic. Of course this will affect my campaign. But during this time of sifting, it is natural that I would gain some and lose some.

As-Safir: You have said in a television interview that you have offered a partnership with Sisi before announcing your candidacy, but that you didn’t receive a detailed response.

Sabahi: Yes, I have publicly and through intermediaries offered a strong partnership of principles, not a partnership of positions. There are four key principles. They include releasing all young detainees of the revolution, preventing the return of Mubarak’s men to the scene, developing a clear vision for social justice and being biased toward the poor. But I didn’t receive decisive assurances.

As-Safir: What if you lose? Can you partner with a rule under another president?

Sabahi: The criterion for me is for the goals of the revolution to be realized. If we fall into the ranks of the opposition, the basis [of our work] would be to put pressure to achieve these goals. Regarding myself, I only have two options: either to be a regular citizen with a political position who supports or opposes the rule, or a citizen who’s elected to fill a certain role. So I will not serve in any political executive office. And this is not inconsistent with the concept of partnership.

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