Egyptian presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi said that his arrival at the Ittihadiya Presidential Palace would mean "the victory of the Egyptian revolution." On the other hand, the policies and decisions of his competitor, former Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, would serve as a "test," in the event that Sisi wins. Sabahi adamantly denied that he was merely "decor" in the presidential battle and spoke with confidence about his chances of victory. He said that he had a more influential role than Sisi in removing the rule of the Brotherhood, since the army would not have taken action had not millions gone out [onto the streets to protest]. Yet he stressed his gratitude that the military institution "sided with the Egyptian people," and rejected slogans raised by some activists demanding "the fall of military rule."
Al-Hayat met with Sabahi, who has a long history of popular struggle, in his office in the Mohandessin neighborhood of Cairo, where photos of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser hang on the walls. He downplayed the fact that figures affiliated with the Nasserite current support his competitor in the elections, and strongly criticized the National Salvation Front (NSF), holding the latter responsible for the army's entrance into politics. He also said the NSF was responsible for the nomination of Sisi, "for failing to agree on a civilian candidate."
Sabahi, whose bookshelf is lined with the complete collection of works by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and books by journalist Mohamed Hassanein [Heikel], considered that the broad participation of the youth and marginalized segments of society [in the elections] could ensure his victory in the presidential battle. He revealed his intention to amend the "demonstration law," which was ratified by the transitional authorities and caused wide controversy, and to release all of those arrested for violating it.
While Sabahi, who had spread out his prayer rug on the side of his office, did not expect the Salafist Nour Party to support him, he said that he would have preferred having an Islamic candidate among the contenders for the presidential seat, so that the Islamists do not "feel isolated." He objected to collectively punishing all members of the Muslim Brotherhood group, and welcomed their protests and slogans — whatever they may be — as long as they don't incite violence and discrimination. However, he stressed his intention to aggressively confront terrorism, saying, "Whoever fires bullets will be met with a cannon."
Sabahi, the founder of the Egyptian Popular Current, said that he was the "popular candidate" and not the candidate of the Nasserite current. He announced that he is seeking to form an alliance with the Gulf states whereby Egypt would participate in protecting the security of the Gulf in exchange for Gulf participation in development within Egypt. He strongly criticized Iran and Turkey's interventions in the region, and welcomed a balanced relationship with the United States.
Here is the text of the interview:
Al-Hayat: How do you expect to win the elections when some of those who supported you in the previous elections are now part of the Sisi campaign? Is that not an indication of your declining [support]?
Sabahi: I am entering the elections fully confident that I will succeed. I rely on the fact that youth feel that they participated in the revolution and did not reap its benefits. They feel anger and exclusion. They have a dream and believe that I am the one who is closest to achieving it. This is in addition to societal forces that I have supported for nearly three decades. They demand to live in dignity and for there to be social justice and genuine development whose fruit is distributed equally. I am betting on these generational segments, and I have presented an [electoral] program that harmonizes with them. Every word in this program is supported by 30 years of proof, showing that I truly believe in [these ideas] and I have the political will to achieve them. The option will be up them, and if they want I'll be president and apply this program.
Al-Hayat: You say that you rely on a segment of the youth, but this segment is divided and some of them refuse your involvement in the elections and prefer to boycott.
Sabahi: I have had success when it comes to convincing this segment of the benefit of participating in the elections, and I will continue this in the coming period. They are a main part of my electoral strength, and I hope that most of those abstaining from participation will change their positions. This is based on our logic that an abstaining vote is absent, while a participating vote is a force that makes a difference. If these people felt that their votes were a force that could make a difference, they would head to the polls.
A misunderstanding of clear words
Al-Hayat: During a recent meeting with a number of youth of the revolution, a controversy arose about a trial for Sisi. Can you clarify?
Sabahi: I stressed during the meeting that I do not [consider] Sisi a criminal who should be prosecuted. Rather the opposite is true, as the army was a partner in the revolution and we appreciate and respect that it sided with the Egyptian people. I strive to partner with the army regarding development, and I refuse to fall into the trap of a false dichotomy between supporters of the revolution and supporters of the army. I consider what happened to be confusion, or a misunderstanding of what I said. In times of competition such things often happen, and they are not considered a big deal. My positions are consistent, and I express my views wherever I am. I don't need to change my rhetoric based on where I am, or based on the people I am gathered with. It's self-evident that the coming parliament will be responsible for issuing transitional justice laws and the judicial authority is responsible for trials, not the president.
Al-Hayat: What about the position of the NSF, in which you were a prominent member. Do you feel that the NSF has abandoned you?
Sabahi: The NSF appeared in a specific moment: to confront the constitutional declaration issued by ousted President Mohammed Morsi, which we considered a dictatorial declaration. I think that the NSF was very important for [driving] popular and political movement to confront the Brotherhood regime. I believe that the front played its role in dealing with the Brotherhood regime to the fullest, despite the criticism it faced. However, there was one thing required of it in which it failed. It should have confirmed, following the June 30 Revolution, that the people who carried out two popular revolutions were capable of presenting a democratic, civilian candidate. Had they agreed — at any point after the issuance of the road map — to support a civilian candidate in the presidential race, and later to enter as an electoral front in the parliamentary [elections], this would have been the most suitable decision, and it was proposed. And I think that had the NSF agreed on a candidate, regardless of who that candidate was, the army would have welcomed this choice and left the scene. Yet the NSF's failure to agree on a presidential candidate, in terms of his program and [electoral] team, contributed to the front retreating from the scene and led to the emergence of the army. The more the scene was emptied of politics, the more the security [forces] became present. The Egyptian scene has become one where politics is withdrawing and security [forces] are progressing. This situation was affected by the role the Brotherhood played in inciting fear and the calling of the security forces to confront them. Thus, I didn't expect [the NSF] to agree to support me. The final results that the NSF reached, to a great extent, divided the parties and forces of the front and [separated them] from their claim that they want a democratic civil state, and more importantly from their ability to have a presence in the street. The candidacy of a figure from the army equates to an announcement that the civil and democratic forces are unable to represent a serious leadership.
Al-Hayat: So you think that the current conditions imposed the presence of Sisi, a candidate with a military background, and that if the NSF had adopted a different approach he wouldn't have entered the elections?
Sabahi: I am confident that Sisi, as a presidential candidate, was the result of an absence of a serious and unified presence of political forces and parties. The army offered its leader to play a political role for various reasons, the most important of which is the absence of a democratic, civilian alternative.
Al-Hayat: Did you strive to realize what you proposed? And what is the nature of the discussions that took place within the NSF in this regard?
Sabahi: Yes, in multiple meetings I brought up the importance of agreeing on a candidate, an [electoral] program and a presidential team. But this was delayed until after the issue of the constitution was resolved, and at that time the belief had emerged that Sisi might be a candidate. And an important group within the NSF believed that if Sisi wanted to run for the presidency, we shouldn't field any candidate to oppose him. This led to the NSF waiting to take a position, without resolving this issue until after Sisi announced that he intended to run. So talk [regarding this matter] stopped within the NSF and it was decided that each party was free to choose [its own candidate to support].
I call on those boycotting to participate
Al-Hayat: There are now some Nasserites who support your opponent, as well as the NSF. Did these people abandon you?
Sabahi: No, any abandonment I could feel would be from two parties who I have a more direct relationship with: Egypt's youth, who believe in the revolution and most of whom think the other candidate is not for them. These young people stand with me very enthusiastically, as I am a part of them. And there are others who are reluctant [to participate] or are boycotting the elections, and feel that this is theatrics and not true elections. Thus, their choice now is to not be an active party — and if they chose to be be active, I think that they would make me win — yet if they left the equation, they would be abandoning me. Then there are the people whose cause I have believed in my whole life and whose rights I have fought for: the poor, laborers and farmers. All of these people have been deprived of their rights and interests, and they now have a tremendous opportunity for the person who sits on the presidential seat to be a loyal representative for them, and to be someone who makes decisions that reflect the policies that represent them. If these people do not support me, I will feel abandonment. As for politicians, regardless of whether they are involved in political parties or from the elite, their calculations are complex and I've come to understand that they are not a crucial factor in the electoral process.
Al-Hayat: Are you expecting the support of the Salafist Nour party?
Sabahi: No. I'm keen to hold dialogue with all political forces, but I don't expect support from the Nour party.
Al-Hayat: On a practical level, do you think that the fact that the competition is restricted to you and Sisi is preferable, or [would it be better] to have a list with many candidates, as happened in the 2012 election?
Sabahi: In the last elections there were many candidates, and [some] were not necessary. But this time we have a very small number of competitors [two]. I think that this is not healthy, in terms of general democracy, as it reflects that there are forces that are not represented as they were in the last elections. This also means that the level of confidence in the electoral process is less, and these indicators must be taken into consideration. Thus, I would have preferred if there were many candidates, to provide an opportunity for a diversity of programs.
Al-Hayat: However, in terms of competition, you should prefer a lack of competitors. Would a diversity [of candidates] benefit you in terms of the number of votes you would obtain?
Sabahi: [Multiple candidates] would certainly benefit Egypt's ability to conduct more diverse elections, and see wider participation. Those who support candidates that are now absent will either give their votes to one of the two candidates, or boycott the election. I would have preferred an election that achieved a higher rate of participation. I mean both participation of candidates, to put forth varied visions, and participation of voters.
Al-Hayat: Regarding the Islamists, do you believe that having an Islamist candidate would have enriched the competition?
Sabahi: Yes. I believe that their absence hurts the scene. The presence of a candidate affiliated with the Islamist current would indicate that Islamists are not isolated and separated from their society. Rather, it would mean that they are partners in the democratic process, instead of being occupied with feelings of oppression and exclusion and embracing hate speech. I think that their presence was necessary.
Al-Hayat: The Nasserist Party announced its support for Sisi, and there are also prominent Nasserites supporting him, including Abdul Hakim Abdul Nasser. Do you believe that the idea of uniting the Nasserist movement has collapsed?
Sabahi: No. I'm a popular candidate, not a candidate for particular party. And this elite does not create the electoral balance. While parties in general are an important factor, they do not determine elections. I am a Nasserite but I didn't present myself as a Nasserist candidate. I presented myself as a popular candidate. My [electoral] program is open, and thus it's only natural that there are some Nasserites who do not support me. And there are parties with different approaches that do support me.
The calculations of political parties are important, but the calculations of youth blocs are more important. This is in addition to the ordinary masses who are disenchanted. To what extent can we reach the latter? This is what will decide the battle. What I want to suggest is that Egyptians, including these youth, can forge a new path for democratic change. The revolution was not only in the square, but also involves fair elections and confronting the problems society faces. I'm not only speaking about the revolution, I'm also speaking about a state. We want a successful state because this will lead to the success of the revolution. We should be able to adjust the prevailing mood in Egypt. Instead of a mood in which everything appears as though it will end in a knockout, [there should be] a mood in which [people] believe in their goals and feel that they can reach them through achieving different steps and successive rounds. And it isn't necessary that each round is a success, rather [the people] should remain firm when it comes to succeeding and have the ability to absorb failure in some rounds. These are the lessons of the Egyptian revolution. We took the streets but we didn't reach power; rather, we referred the matter to transitional authorities. Since we didn't reach power through the classical method of revolutions — i.e. overthrowing the regime and taking power — what is now left for us is the democratic path. If we abandon this path and don't enter into these battles, do we resign from the scene? I don't think that a country that carried out two revolutions and wants to achieve the goals of these revolutions is able to give up on the revolution. We can change and develop our mechanisms, and this is an important thing that I want to say to those boycotting: If the youth give up the role they have, then why did we carry out two revolutions in three years? And what is the alternative they propose: a new revolutionary wave? I think that the street is not prepared for this at this moment, especially since there is room to compete and prove our strength through the polls.
Indicators of neutrality
Al-Hayat: There are those who question the election and consider it theatrics. What is your evidence that this is not the case?
Sabahi: That I am one of the candidates.
Al-Hayat: They say that you are a part of this play.
Sabahi: They say that, but when I enter the election I am serious. My history is known by all, and there is a shared responsibility to achieve a modern, democratic and civil state that can achieve the goals of the revolution. My candidacy reflects the revolution that builds a state; it does not collide with or undermine the state. My understanding of the revolution is that it will continue until it reaches a state, and not remain in the square. A revolution only occurs when there are real demands from society, and these demands cannot be achieved without a strong and successful state. Those who want to abandon the state and make the same mistakes, and leave the people angry in the square criticizing the state and demanding the fall of its leaders — I think that this keeps Egypt in a state of exhaustion. We want to be finished with this [exhaustion].
Al-Hayat: You talk about the state being biased toward your competitor. However, we saw that the Supreme Presidential Elecitons Commission (SPEC) [extended the deadline] for obtaining [the necessary] endorsements on April 25, and agreed to add the symbol of an eagle [beside your name on the ballot] as you requested. What gives you the impression that [the state] is biased?
Sabahi: I officially announced that I had finished collecting endorsements on April 24, so I didn't benefit from the decision [to extend the deadline]. I view the SPEC as an independent body, and I hope that it remains as such. In the 2012 elections, the symbol of the eagle initially was not included. I requested that it be added and it was, so there is a precedent. I think that a keenness to remain neutral meant that when I requested the symbol, they responded to my request. This is a good indicator of neutrality, and not bias.
Al-Hayat: You frequently say: "The revolution must reach power." Do you consider that Sisi reaching power would be the defeat of the revolution?
Sabahi: Of course. The revolution will reach power if I win. This will not be a subject of controversy. Yet, is Sisi reaching the presidency an expression of the revolution? I consider the army to be a partner in the revolution, however the policies that Sisi will implement if he wins, the nature of his partnerships in administering the state, and the ideas expressed about him — this is what will determine [if he represents the revolution]. However, of course I can't put him in the same category as the Brotherhood. His ability to respond to the public and the lessons he has learned will allow him to overcome the mistakes committed by the Brotherhood. The problem with Sisi is that he came from the ranks of the state, and not from the movement on the street. The mood, the manner of thinking and the existing alignments on the street do not conform with the manner of thinking of a man who comes from the ranks of the state. To what extent will he diverge from the thinking and alignments of the state, and its related interests, so that he will be victorious [in the view of] the people? This is a difficult challenge he will face. In any case, he will be judged by his ability to implement his program. The revolution will succeed in the event of my success. Yet if he wins, we will have to wait, we can't prejudge.
Al-Hayat: But people look at [his] previous work. They believe that Sisi is capable of performing in a position of responsibility. The people saw him [perform] in the test of crisis management.
Sabahi: It is true that this is a characteristic of him, however it is more clearly a characteristic of myself. I've surpassed him in some stages.
Al-Hayat: How so?
Sabahi: In terms of positions. Sisi took a position of supporting the people on July 3, but before him I took a position in support of the people when the constitutional declaration was issued [in November 2012]. And had I not taken this position, along with other politicians, and more importantly had the masses not taken to the streets with us, Sisi would not have taken this stance. We were subjected to attacks outside the Ittihadiya [Presidential] Palace, and Sisi didn't take a stance. And I understand this approach; it reflects smart administration that intervenes at the appropriate time. The appropriate time came when millions of people took to the streets. The people are the ones who achieved the goal, and Sisi only came out to announce the result. The people came out in the millions, and had no guarantees regarding the army's position. The people had taken to the streets many times before and the army didn't interfere. The true heroes are the Egyptian people; the army had a secondary role. Would any leader in the army have his soldiers make a move against the president of the republic before he saw millions in the streets? [No], this is impossible … We want to compare between the ability of Sisi to make a decision — which we respect — after the people took to the streets, and the ability of the people to make a decision without knowing the army's position. [The people didn't know] that the army would go out to confront the president and his tools. I'm a man who has made decisions since I was a university student, and all of these decisions have challenged the authorities and express the interests of the people. Administration is nothing other than political will.
Decision-making ... the key to the stage
Al-Hayat: There are political figures affiliated with the revolution who participated in the post-revolutionary governments, but failed the test when it came to executive work.
Sabahi: Perhaps there are examples of those who failed, and examples of those who succeeded. However, when we talk about the post of president of the republic, we must talk about the ability to possess a political will that achieves the interests of the people. And this is the main key for the next president. The key lies in decision making. We want both will and administration. Through multiple wills comes administration. You are judging Sisi based on his alignment with the will of the people, while we judge him based on his competence in terms of administration. Wasn't [Sisi] a member of the former Military Council, whose administration failed? He had many responsibilities in the state, and if we review them, we find that he is not a dazzling model for efficient management.
Al-Hayat: You welcomed the Brotherhood's demonstrations where they raised the [four-fingered] sign of "Rabia [al-Adawiyah]," yet this contradicts with the court ruling that the Brotherhood is terrorist group.
Sabahi: The Brotherhood failed in governance and committed an error in terms of opposition through using violence, not through using signs or slogans. I [am not concerned] with the Rabia sign or chants that condemn any practices; this is the right of all Egyptians. Their only obligations before the state of law is to be peaceful. [If I become president,] I will change the current demonstration law that was drafted by the transitional government and caused widespread controversy. And I will release all of those who were imprisoned according to this law, which must be overturned. I am responsible for defending the right of anyone to express his or her opinion through chants, signs or banners.
Al-Hayat: Even if it included incitement?
Sabahi: No, if it includes incitement then this will be subject to penalty under the law.
Al-Hayat: The Rabia sign has been raised in demonstrations that are based on incitement.
Sabahi: If someone incites violence or terrorism, he or she must be subject to the law and held accountable. We must differentiate between violence and peaceful expression. The rule of law is responsible for protecting [the right to] peaceful expression and confronting violence with more severe violence. Whoever fires bullets will be met with a cannon. This is the right of the state and society, and the duty of the president. Those who carry out terrorism or incite violence through their words, or those who push [people] toward violence, must be subject to the law. But we must also confront these people with ideology, and reveal the corrupt nature of their thoughts and their misunderstanding of religion. We can't only confront them through security measures.
Thus, it is necessary to distinguish between violence — in practice, calls or incitement — and all forms of discriminatory rhetoric and hate speech. There is rhetoric that does not call or violence, but degrades [certain] citizens and elevates others, without respecting ideas of citizenship and equality. Thus, responding to many forms of rhetoric, [I say]: rhetoric in the name of religion considers others apostates, rhetoric in the name of nationalism betrays, and rhetoric in the name of the revolution insults or condemns. We must move away from all these forms of rhetoric with a new rhetoric that begins with the president and the inclinations of the state. But even more important is the media and educational system. We want a serious, rational rhetoric that respects diversity and plurality, and collectively confronts violence.
Al-Hayat: In the event that you win, will you work [to ensure] the presence of a political party for the Brotherhood, after everything that happened?
Sabahi: I believe that there is no party for the Brotherhood, and this is by virtue of the constitution that we respect. Moreover, there is no Brotherhood organization, according to a court ruling. However, we must differentiate between the organization and the individuals. I am coming to rule a country for four years without the presence of an organization or party [for the Brotherhood], but at the same time I am responsible for every individual in society. Regardless of whether or not a person [supports] the Brotherhood or is an Islamist, his freedoms, right to work and right to peaceful expression must be defended. Moreover, if he wants, he has the right to enter elections. What I've noticed now is that the country is experiencing a wave of total isolation directed at the Brotherhood, both as an organization and individuals. This isolation includes Islamists, whether they belong to the Brotherhood or not. We must distinguish between those people, whether Brotherhood members or not, [who supported the organization] and those who condemned it and did not participate in violence. If we succeed in instilling this distinction in a correct manner, this is part of the vision to heal Egypt's wound. And instead of being a country in a clash with itself because of divisions, it will be looking to the future.
Al-Hayat: Since you are now competing with Sisi, have you changed your stance in opposition to the slogan demanding "the fall of military rule"?
Sabahi: My position on the army is unchanged. I respect the army and believe that it should receive complete support from the next president. And part of this support allows it to perform its constitutional role of being a protector, not a ruler, for the country. It should be an institution to guarantee strong security against external and internal threats, and not indulge in partisan or political debates.
Al-Hayat: What about relations with the US?
Sabahi: I want a good relationship with them that is friendly and generous, not one based on dependency.
Al-Hayat: Have you been in contact with US officials?
Sabahi: No, but I do have a position opposing them. I want to emphasize that Egypt needs a balanced relationship [with the US] and to open relations with all regional powers. It is also in need of serious Arab support, especially a strengthening of close ties with the Arab Gulf. I want [Egypt] to be a party involved in protecting the Gulf, which is subject to real threats, while the Gulf will be a partner in true development [in Egypt]. If Arab partnerships are built on a basis of mutual interests, particularly with regards to security and development, this would achieve successes for Egypt and support its interests. The Gulf's role after the June revolution has been very positive, and we must respect it and ensure that it continues.
Getting out of regional conflicts
Al-Hayat: In the last election you proposed the formation of an alliance with Turkey and Iran. These two countries are opposed to what happened in Egypt, so have you changed your mind on this idea?
Sabahi: I think that the correct choice for Egypt and the Arabs is to get out of any regional conflict. If [a state] tries to do something at the expense of our security and our interest, we must confront them, but this would not be a choice. We are not looking for battles. We want Turkey and Iran to be with the Arabs. We want relations that achieve shared interests, ensure no party will interfere in the internal affairs of another, and involve an exchange of interests, particularly in terms of security and development. Is Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan contributing to this now? Of course not, and we reject his rhetoric. Is Iran's performance at this time contributing to this? No. I don't want them to interfere in [Egypt's] affairs. I don't want Iran to represent a threat to Arab states, especially the Gulf. I don't want Turkey to play a role against Syria, Iraq or Egypt, or to get caught up in irresponsible statements that make claims against Egyptians in the interest of an organization. A country the size of Turkey, and a people with such a history, should not find itself with a government that aligns with an organization at the expense of the Egyptian people.
Al-Hayat: What about Hamas?
Sabahi: We will stand against any party that dares [to harm] Egyptian security. This is a principle. I support Palestine without discrimination, and I will remain in support of the rights of the Palestinian people. As for Hamas, if it was playing its role as a part of Palestine, resisting the occupier and not threatening Egypt's security — which we would decisively confront — then we are with it.
Al-Hayat: When would you withdraw from the presidential race?
Sabahi: I would not withdraw from the elections unless I found that there was blatant interference from the state, or fraud in the election. Ever since I was a student I have entered elections against the state and the authorities. I am not an idealistic man who believes that the Egyptian state will be neutral, but I will also not just sit at home and wait for the state to become neutral and for the pillars of democracy to be instilled in the country. When I enter the election, I will obtain democracy to the extent that I engage and fight to ensure it.
Al-Hayat: What role do you envision for yourself in the event that you lose the election?
Sabahi: I want Egypt and its revolution to succeed, for I want a successful state. If the will of the people does not want me to reach the presidency, then I will be in the opposition.
Al-Hayat: Even if the next president's policies are compatible with your convictions?
Sabahi: I believe that what is expected of me is a success in the [presidential] battle. [In the event that I lose], taking responsibility means that I will be in the ranks of a strong, nationalistic opposition that believes in the state. This is a part of a role that we must strengthen. I will support the state to the extent that it follows the path of achieving the goals of the people and the revolution. And I will object in the case that it wavers from this path. I will not occupy a position or a part of the executive authority through appointment.
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