Sunday,17 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)
Sunday,17 December, 2017
Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

A voice of dissent?

Khaled Dawoud watched former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi’s controversial, and interrupted, TV interview

Al-Ahram Weekly

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi is “leading the country down the wrong path,” according to former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi. He made the comment during a three-hour interview aired live on a popular television talk show last week.

The broadcast provoked a storm of criticism, not only from Al-Sisi’s hardline supporters who think any disagreement with the president is tantamount to treason, but from figures opposed to Al-Sisi’s policies. The latter accused Sabahi of turning in yet another performance as part of his attempts to keep himself in the public eye and his stalling political career afloat.

At a time when state-owned and private television channels issue joint statements declaring that to back the regime in its “war against terrorism” is a national duty, and the space given to opposition figures — whom many dub enemies of the state, foreign agents or Muslim-Brotherhood sympathisers — has shrunk to the point of invisibility, it was inevitable that Dream TV’s decision to host Sabahi for a lengthy interview would raise eyebrows.

They were raised even further when, 15 minutes into the interview, just as Sabahi was launching into an attack on Al-Sisi’s policies, the studio went dark. For a few seconds viewers could still hear Sabahi speaking, but then even the audio was cut.

Twenty-three minutes later, Sabahi reappeared on screen and Wael Al-Ibrashi, host of Dream TV’s “Al-Ashera Masaan”, apologised to viewers, saying he was “astonished and puzzled by the sudden interruption of electricity to the studio.”

Just minutes before the unexplained interruption, Ibrashi had asked Sabahi why he believes Al-Sisi no longer represents the aspirations of the majority of Egyptians, and whether or not he believes the president continues to enjoy widespread popularity.

Sabahi, a candidate in both the 2012 and 2014 presidential elections, did not deny that Al-Sisi still commands popular support. He added, however, “This popularity is receding quickly.”

Sabahi then began a series of rhetorical questions addressed to the president.

“If the people truly support and love you why don’t you give them what they want, the demands of the 25 January Revolution — bread, freedom and social justice?” he asked.

“Why don’t you give them democracy, a civilian state and a dignified life in which they can provide for their children and access proper education and health care? Isn’t this what the people paid heavily for, with young men dying as martyrs and others losing their eyes?”

“And what have you given them in return? Widespread injustices. Young men imprisoned for long periods for protesting peacefully. Poor people becoming poorer.”

It was at this point that television screens tuned into the programme went blank. Sabahi could then be heard saying, “This is not acceptable.”

When the lights returned to the Dream TV studio, Sabahi did not tone down his criticism, though he insisted he was speaking out against current policies because he wanted President Al-Sisi to succeed, and was fully aware of the challenges facing Egypt in its war against terror and given the spread of regional instability.

“But we cannot follow the same old policies and expect different results. The current regime is walking on the same path and adopting the same policies of the Mubarak regime. It lacks a vision and is biased against the interests of the majority of poor Egyptians.”

Sabahi went on to advise young supporters of the 25 January Revolution not to protest in the streets to mark the fifth anniversary of the uprising. “I do not feel the public mood is ready to accept protests in the streets, out of fear of violence and clashes with the police,” he said.

On the issue of any compromise with the Brotherhood, Sabahi said he opposes attempts to reintegrate the group into the political scene and repeated official charges that it had fomented violence and harmed the interests of the Egyptian people.

Mustafa Bakri, an MP known for his staunch support of the army and of Al-Sisi, took particular issue with the criticisms Sabahi levelled at the military’s involvement in all aspects of national life. In the interview, Sabahi said he wanted the army to steer clear of politics, and wondered aloud whether it was in Egypt’s national interest for the army to be so heavily involved in economic life.

“I think the army is overstretching itself, building national projects, roads, reclaiming millions of feddans, unblocking Alexandria’s drains and selling meat and vegetables at cheap prices. This is too much. I want the army to concentrate on its core duty of protecting the country and securing its borders.”

Supporters of Al-Sisi immediately took to social media to attack Sabahi, charging that he was making false claims in order to position himself as an opposition leader. Others rehashed allegations that first appeared when Sabahi ran against Al-Sisi in the 2014 presidential elections: he has no regular job or source of income; he happily accepted money from dictators such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and that his only goal is to secure a leading position in the state.

Sabahi also came under attack from radical activists and leftists who felt betrayed when he chose to stand against Al-Sisi a year and a half ago, a move, they said, that lent credibility to an election that had already been stitched up. Once more, they charged, Sabahi was being used by the regime to give the impression that dissenting voices are allowed to air their views freely under Al-Sisi.

“I never had much confidence in Sabahi,” said Hisham Abdel-Ghaffar, a columnist with Tahrir. “What little I did have evaporated when he agreed to take part in the theatrics of the 2014 presidential elections, and continued to do so even when the voting was extended for a third day. He should stop trying to play the hero while all the time changing his positions to suit his own interests and ambitions.”

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