Comparing Sisi and Sabahi's presidential campaigns

There are only two candidates running in Egypt’s upcoming presidential elections, Hamdeen Sabahi and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and the predominance of the latter has resulted in atypical electoral campaigns.

al-monitor People working for Hamdeen Sabahi in Cairo submit boxes of endorsements collected as Sabahi arrives to submit his bid to run for president, April 19, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Al Youm Al Saabi Newspaper.

Topics covered

media, january 25 revolution, hamdeen sabahi, elections, egypt, abdel fattah al-sisi

May 8, 2014

The electoral race in Egypt took off between the two candidates, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Hamdeen Sabahi. Compared to the 2012 elections, which were marked by strong competition, variety and surprise, this race is strange, given its coldness, lack of variety and perhaps competence. In fact, the electoral campaigns of the candidates reflect these confusing characteristics and disrupt the democratic transition process, while reconfirming the persisting division and polarization in society. Although not all the strategies and tools of Sisi’s and Sabahi’s campaigns have been revealed, some primary remarks about these campaigns can be made. Perhaps the most important remarks include the following:

First, the ability of the two campaigns to influence the opinions and inclinations of voters has declined. The polarized environment set out the choices for citizens several months ago. Consequently, the electoral campaigns and media no longer had the same ability to change opinions and stances regarding the candidates. The voters were divided into three different categories with varying power and influence.

  1. Sisi supporters: They see Sisi as the hero who saved Egypt from the dangers of the Muslim Brotherhood and from division and civil war. They also consider him the figure that represents the state and the army. Therefore, for them, he is the “needed candidate” because he is the only one capable of cooperating and working with the state institutions to achieve security and stability and save the economy. It is worth nothing that this category supported Sisi even before he submitted his candidacy or announced his program. Moreover, this category encompasses wide and varied social and political groups, including Nasserites, leftists, figures from [former President Hosni] Mubarak’s regime, liberals, statesmen, businessmen and wealthy men, and most importantly, a wide public base that sees in him as a new Gamal Abdel Nasser.
  2. Those boycotting the elections and all or most elements of the road map: This category’s reasons for boycotting differ, and its components vary. Some belong to the Brotherhood or sympathize with it, while others, especially the youth, refuse the current electoral environment and see it as mere theatrics to maintain democracy in form, not content.
  3. Sabahi supporters: This category considers Sabahi the candidate needed for the civil forces, who represents the opposition and the demand for change expressed before the January 25 Revolution and after it. This group includes most youth revolutionaries, Nasserites, the Popular Current and many liberal parties and centrist left parties, in addition to members of social classes that are fond of his rhetoric about social justice and his clear commitment to the amended version of Nasserism, as well as his candor.

Second, an official aspect prevails over Sisi’s campaign, while a public aspect prevails over Sabahi’s weakly planned campaign. Sabahi’s campaign appeared spontaneous, limited in abilities and accompanied by a constant endeavor to enhance its powers with the efforts of youths. Moreover, Sabahi was moving around freely. In less than a week, he commuted between five provinces. Sisi, however, does not have this privilege, as he cannot visit the provinces and hold public conferences for security reasons. So, he focused instead on holding meetings with representatives of parties, organizations and various political and social forces behind closed doors. Remarkably, all parties participating in these meetings deal with Sisi as a president rather than a presidential candidate. What’s more, the volunteers in Sisi’s campaign, the state institutions and the public and private media also deal with him as the president or the winning candidate. This has raised doubts about the impartiality of the state institutions and media. I also believe that treating Sisi as the president rather than a candidate might make his campaign look arrogant and disdainful toward his adversary. Consequently, this might negatively affect Sisi’s chances of winning.

Third, Sisi’s campaign refused to participate in a public debate with Sabahi, thus apparently undermining the adversary or perhaps showing fear of repeating the influences and negative setbacks of the famous debate of the 2012 elections between Amr Moussa and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. The debate negatively affected both candidates due to the lack of organization.

Perhaps the public was not accustomed to this form of discussion during which the adversary is attacked by the other candidate and which might not be in line with the Egyptian vision of the pharaonic president. Surprisingly, Sabahi’s campaign is urgently demanding organizing a two-round debate, while Sisi’s campaign is refusing, maybe because it is not that arrogantly sure of its victory after all. Perhaps it is afraid of the negative effects the debate might have on the image of Sisi, who is being dealt with as a president rather than a candidate. It is noteworthy that the campaign has been careful about avoiding Sisi’s appearance in live broadcasts on television channels. All his meetings and interviews have been recorded and broadcasted after removing some scenes and statements. This deprives those interviews of the needed spontaneity and confirms the official aspect of the campaign.

Fourth, the campaigns of Sisi and Sabahi have been facing different problems with their supporters.

Sisi’s campaign is suffering from several issues that include:

  1. An overflow of donations and volunteers, most of whom have their eyes set on certain positions after Sisi’s victory.
  2. Numerous figures from Mubarak’s regime who want to join Sisi’s campaign or support it. The leaders of the National Democratic Party in the suburbs and some retired military men have organized equivalent campaigns to support Sisi. Most of them do not obey the instructions of the central campaign. Thus, fear of the return of the old regime has emerged.
  3. Some pro-Sisi zealots declared enmity for the January 25 Revolution and considered it a foreign conspiracy. This contradicts Sisi’s open statements about the revolution and negatively affects his popularity among youth groups.

Sabahi’s campaign, on the other hand, lacks financial resources. Moreover, some leftist groups and organizations, which have adopted slogans offending the army and police and demanding to try the killers of the rebels and protesters and to reallocate wealth, have joined the campaign. This has stirred the fears of middle class groups that sympathize with Sabahi.

Fifth, Sabahi’s campaign announced the program of its candidate before the scheduled date of launching the electoral campaign. This step exposed it to the accountability of the Presidential Elections Committee. Despite that, it beat Sisi’s campaign, which hasn’t declared the program of its candidate yet. Moreover, Sisi’s campaign did not give a clear vision for resolving Egypt’s economic and social problems either. Instead, it raised general slogans and gave moral and emotional speeches about patriotism and the need to work and produce and ensure stability and security. These are all goals that were repeated in Sisi’s talks with journalists and representatives of social constituencies.

It seems that Sisi is relying on the account of his battles against the Brotherhood and on the people’s trust more than his vision or program. He also enjoys an emotional rhetoric that uses religious and ethical words, which can move many Egyptians and give them hope and faith in the future. In other words, [the campaign considers that] trusting Sisi as a person and as a representative of the state and army is more important than his visions and electoral program or the ways and tools needed to restore security and stability and save the economy.

Sixth, given the short period of time between Sisi’s resignation from his position as minister of defense and his candidacy, his campaign increased his media appearance so that voters could be introduced to his life and ideas as a presidential candidate. Perhaps this happened as a compensation for Sisi’s inability to visit the capitals of provinces and hold public meetings for security reasons. Still, the intense media appearances were exaggerated, and it showed the television channels’ bias toward Sisi. Long hours were dedicated to broadcasting his interviews and meetings, while Sabahi was not given the same amount of attention. This bias might undoubtedly affect Sisi’s popularity and media image negatively.

The truth of the matter is that increasing television appearances of Sisi, and the fact that unions, political parties and civil society are keen to attend his meetings, shows that the state and society structures are biased toward him, turning the elections into some sort of a referendum. The most dangerous thing is that this media hype is recreating this idea of an incontestable pharaoh president. It should also be noted that at first Sisi refused to run for presidency, but changed his mind under popular and official pressure.

The aforementioned remarks may help change the performance of the two campaigns and develop them for the better, especially since the race has just started and there is always a need to gauge the expected and unexpected reactions of voters. However, public opinion polls are nascent [in the country] and depend on foreign or unknown sources of funding. People continue to answer questions about polls over the phone, which affect the accuracy and objectivity of the answers. This is especially true given that in light of Egypt’s political culture, Egyptians are reluctant to answer questions freely over the phone.

Thus, the polls in the presidential and parliamentary elections have failed to predict the correct results. I believe this failure reduces the confidence of the campaigns of Sisi and Sabahi in counting on the outcome of public opinion polls. The pertinent question remains: What are the available alternatives for each campaign to enhance its performance?

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More from  Mohammad Shuman

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