Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1195, (1-7 May 2014)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1195, (1-7 May 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Presidential elections deciphered

Who is on whose side, and why? Dina Ezzat searches for answers

Al-Ahram Weekly

The positioning is on. Political parties have been placing their bids on presidential runners Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Hamdeen Sabahi while others are opting to side with neither.

The Wafd Party, the longest established liberal party, and Al-Tagammu, its leftist equivalent, are at the head of Al-Sisi’s advance guard.  

“We are not just supporting Al-Sisi but have been at the forefront of political forces and bodies calling for him to run for president. We lobbied for his nomination and we are lobbying on the ground for his election even though we know he already enjoys a comfortable winning margin,” says leading Al-Tagammu member Farida Al-Naqash.

The reasons Al-Naqash offers for supporting Al-Sisi are the same as Hussein Abdel-Razek’s, another leading name in the party, had offered for supporting Ahmed Shafik in the second round of the 2012 presidential poll: keep the Muslim Brotherhood away from government to avert political, security and economic mishap.

In June 2012 Abdel-Razek was willing to swallow the fact that Shafik was a leading member of the Hosni Mubarak regime. He served as civil aviation minister and as Mubarak’s last prime minister. Yet for Abdel-Razek, Shafik was “for political pragmatic reasons a better choice than Mohamed Morsi”.

Today, says Al-Naqash, “we have been proven right”.

“Morsi made all the mistakes we feared in terms of undermining national security interests, social cohesion and economic feasibility. He also made the mistakes we feared from Shafik in terms of persecution of the opposition, political nepotism and monopoly.”

Al-Naqash refuses the argument that to support Al-Sisi amounts to supporting the counter revolution, and gives no weight to the fact he was the head of military intelligence and later the minister of defence under Morsi.

 “This is not 2012. The key challenge now is to maintain the cohesion of the state after it was terribly compromised under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. For this task we need someone with the experience and the influence of Al-Sisi.”

She added that whatever was the post that the prominent presidential candidate had under the rule of Mubarak has to do with his status as an officer and not with his links to the Mubarak regime as such. “After all we perceive the Armed Forces as a national institution and we see Al-Sisi as a leading figure of this institution who could live up to the challenge of the moment.”

Right candidate for a tough task: The contention that Al-Sisi is the right man to eliminate any lingering influence of the Muslim Brotherhood figures prominently in the arguments of two political parties established after the 25 January Revolution, the Free Egyptians Party, closely associated with businessman Naguib Sawiris, a harsh critic of the Muslim Brotherhood and a strong supporter of Ahmed Shafik in 2012, and the Conference Party, established by Amr Moussa, the former presidential candidate who is now one of Al-Sisi’s advisors.  

Mohamed Al-Orabi, leader of the Conference Party, and Ahmed Said, a former post 25 January foreign minister, were lobbying for Al-Sisi before he announced his nomination. Their argument is that had it not been for “the brave decision” of Al-Sisi to side with the will of the nation’s political forces calling for the 30 June protests, they would have been rounded up and sent to jail and the millions of demonstrators who took up to the street across the nation to demand an end to the “failed rule” of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood would have been “crushed on the street”.

Today, the argument goes, the Muslim Brotherhood threat is still very real and Al-Sisi the man to face it down.  

Beyond conventional wisdom: The Wafd Party, which boasts a history of opposing military rule since 1952,  and was in the ranks of the — officially condoned — opposition to the Mubarak regime, had no hesitation in supporting Al-Sisi.

Essam Shiha, a member of the Wafd’s Higher Committee, argues that once elected Al-Sisi will not reintroduce military rule because “beyond the first few years of the rule of Gamal Abdel-Nasser there has not been a military rule, in any real sense, and by the time Mubarak was in charge the military had been side-lined, even though it retained some influence and retired officers were given key posts”.

Younger members of  the Wafd are happy to speak off-record. “In 2012 the party promised support for Amr Moussa but orders were actually issued to vote for Ahmed Shafik a few days ahead of the first round. And of course the party supported Shafik in the second round under the banner of supporting the a civil state,” says one.

Civil and revolutionary: Unlike those who support Al-Sisi regardless – or even because – of his military background, those who say they prefer Hamdeen Sabahi complain Al-Sisi is neither a civilian nor a revolutionary candidate.

“Sabahi, when all is said and done, is both civil and revolutionary, while Al-Sisi will always be remain the Field Marshal in the eyes of his supporters and of the state,” says Bassem Yassa of Al-Dostour Party.

Like everyone who is supporting Sabahi, Yassa has no illusions about his chances of defeating Al-Sisi. But then a vote for Sabahi, he argues, is not just to show support for one candidate but to register approval for a cause — a civil president who subscribes to the 25 January Revolution and its demands.

“People can agree or disagree with Sabahi but there is no argument to be made about the fact that he has always been on the side of the opposition, on the side of the poor and of the disadvantaged,” says Yassa.

Sabahi came third, behind Morsi and Shafik, in the first round of the 2012 elections despite the fact that his campaign started late. He ended ahead of both Amr Moussa, placed first by most independent polls but who ended up fifth in the actual race, and of Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, second in the polls but fourth in the results. Yet this month Sabahi had a hard time collecting the 25,000 nominations required to qualify as a candidate.

The necessary endorsements were finally collected at the eleventh hour. Almost immediately security and political sources began to brief anonymously — and be widely reported — that this had only proved possible because of “the helping hand” of the state and the reluctance of Al-Sisi to run un-opposed.

Similar sources were also quoted anonymously in 2012, alleging “state support” for Sabahi. Some security and municipal sources said he was helped by state security; others added the Muslim Brotherhood who chose to aid Sabahi in order to defeat both Amr Moussa and Abul-Fotouh.

An opposition constituency: These rumours, says Mohamed Al-Sweify, a leading figure in the Sabahi campaign, are unfounded and will have no impact on Sabahi’s constituency.

“For 40 years Sabahi has been in the opposition. He has served in parliament and his supporters know him very well. This kind of gossip, relayed by reporters, will not influence them.”

Sabahi’s constituency, according to Al-Sweify, comprises the young people who started the 25 January Revolution in the hope of democratisation and who will not settle for Al-Sisi and the “unconvincing promise” that he is the man who could make the demands of that revolution — bread-freedom-social justice — a reality.

The young comprise 40 per cent of eligible voters. In 2012 their votes were went almost equally to Sabahi and Abul-Fotouh. Now, argues Al-Sweify, Sabahi is likely to retain the majority of those who voted for him in the first round of 2012, many of those who voted for Abul-Fotouh and some of those who voted for Moussa.

“We know that it is a tough challenge, especially given the anti-revolution defamation campaign, but we will be working hard and Sabahi is planning extensive tours to rally votes.”

His first appearance is planned for tomorrow in the Upper Egypt governorate of Assiut when Sabahi, according to Raafat Nabil of the Karama Party, will reach out to “poorer people, the labourers and peasants who are not living at the big cities”.

These are the people, argues Nabil, privy to few if any socio-economic privileges, who form the core of the opposition vote.

“We know they are depressed because of the way things have unfolded and we are not blind to the influence that landowners and factory and business owners are exercising to collect votes for Al-Sisi but we are going to try hard to build a strong opposition vote.”

The undecided:  A quarter of the electorate has yet to make up its mind.

Several groups — including 6 April Movement which a court order banned on Monday, and the Revolutionary Socialists, remain undecided although they seem to be moving closer to Sabahi.

Some members are arguing for a boycott on the basis that the elections can hardly be fair given state, business and media support for Al-Sisi.

“We think that the whole political process is being undermined, if not completely derailed, in favour of the re-establishment of the pre-25 January ruling mode,” Zizo Abdou, a member of 6 April Movement, argued.

Hesitation over voting for Sabahi, say 6 April and Revolutionary Socialists sources as well as those from other youth groupings, including some with an Islamist tinge, is not about lack of faith in the revolutionary commitment of Sabahi – certainly not in comparison with Al-Sisi – but about lack of faith in the electoral process.

“We are not talking about directly rigging the elections but about  heavy-handed anti-revolutionary campaigning, in the media as in other public spheres, which is ultimately going to influence the voting,” says Mohamed Al-Qassas, leader of the Egyptian Current.

Some other parties, including the Egyptian Socialist Democratic Party, have decided not to endorse either candidates but allow members to choose for themselves.

The big blocs: Neither Sabahi nor Al-Sisi have much hope of winning the Islamist vote. Al-Sisi may secure votes from the leadership of the Salafist Nour Party but growing tensions between the party’s leaders and younger cadres mean the number will be limited.  

Sabahi, who was at the forefront of anti-Morsi campaigning before the ouster, and who has made no promises for the re-integration of the Muslim Brotherhood, is not expecting to pick up much support from unhappy Islamists.

 “The Muslim Brotherhood are entering political and maybe even social isolation. They have no faith in any non-Islamist political players and they are now in an alliance with radical Islamist militants that makes it impossible for them to integrate in the political process. Their defining theme now is resentment of the state,” argues Ahmed Ban, an expert on Islamist affairs.

Even the most pragmatic of former Muslim Brothers “have no real faith in Sabahi… they think of him as a man who agreed to play second fiddle to Al-Sisi in a political farce”. And the bulk of the Muslim Brotherhood, angry with all the political players given the security and judicial persecution they say they are facing, seem most likely to boycott the vote. This also applies to other Islamist parties, from Salafist groupings to the Strong Egypt Party.

The Coptic Church, meanwhile, which Shafik in 2012, is supporting Al-Sisi. So too are Sufi groups.

This is unfortunate, argues commentator and former parliamentarian Amin Iskandar. Iskandar would prefer a repetition of 2102 when some younger Copts opted not to take Church directions and voted for either Moussa or Sabahi. The same pattern applied to members of Sufi orders.

A whole different mood: “Let us face it. This is an entirely different experience than in 2012. The mood is completely different,” says former MP Bassel Adel.

In 2012 there were “plenty of choices”.

“It did not matter where you stood, you could always find someone to represent you. Now many people feel Al-Sisi does not represent them and neither does Sabahi.”

According to Adel “the whole scene is different”.

“The campaigns are subdued; the rallying is not passionate and of course we are not looking for a presidential debate. It is very unfortunate but we are experiencing a setback to the revolutionary and pro-democratisation mood that prevailed in 2012 an. It has been replaced by the call for stability that dominated under Mubarak.”

Political commentator Mohamed Al-Agati is not just worried about the “megashift in electoral dynamics” but about what will follow the election.

Unlike some reformists — they include Amr Al-Chobaki — who have contributed ideas to Al-Sisi’s electoral programme and have said they are confident that once inaugurated as president Al-Sisi will slowly but surely promote democracy and human rights, Al-Agati fears the opposite.

The whole political mood prevailing since the ouster of Morsi on 3 July has revealed a taste for the obliteration of all opposition. It grows more explicit by the day.

For Al-Agati it is the political context, however independent from Al-Sisi’s direct choices, that is most telling. He is particularly alarmed by this week’s verdict banning the 6 April Movement and the death sentence issued against more than 600 members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Al-Sisi’s more enlightened supporters can argue all they want, says Al-Agati, but if the prevailing winds are blowing against them they will not be heard. And at the moment the storm blowing against all opposition is growing in ferocity

Islamists are being holed up in a ghetto, revolutionaries are divided and increasingly marginalised while traditional conservative forces are feeling ever more triumphant about their calls for stability.

“This was not what we had in 2012 and this is not where we hoped we would be,” says Al-Agati.

Pragmatic still

Having voted for Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh in 2012, Nermeen is voting for Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in May, and for the same reasons. She wants to see the Muslim Brotherhood side-lined.

In June Nermeen will be celebrating her 30th birthday and, she hopes, the inauguration of Al-Sisi as president.

Nermeen, a civil engineer, is expecting “a landslide electoral victory” for the former chief of the army who oversaw the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi following nation-wide protests against his rule.

“I do not support Al-Sisi because he is former chief of the army or because he has the support of the state, though these are factors for sure, but because he will act as a firm deterrence against the Muslim Brotherhood who mismanaged the country for a year.”

 “Uppermost in people’s minds now,” she says, “is the thought that if he makes it to power Al-Sisi will continue to corner the Muslim Brotherhood. This is what people want. It is what the Muslim Brotherhood made people want”.

The rule of the Muslim Brotherhood “damaged” everything.

“Look at the Islamist militants who infiltrated the country from the eastern and western borders and look at the huge amounts of arms that have infested the country. It all happened during the rule of Morsi and he did it deliberately.”

As well as militants and weapon smuggling, for Nermeen holds neither the police nor army responsible, she blames Morsi for “having wrecked the economy, worsened Muslim-Christian relations and damaged foreign policy”.

Unaffiliated politically, though “a firm supporter of the 25 January Revolution from day one,” Nermeen says she always knew “the Muslim Brotherhood were bad news for the country” — which is why she chose to vote for Abul-Fotouh in the first round of the 2012 presidential elections. She thought the candidate who could best stand up to the Brotherhood was someone who had defected from their ranks, who would appeal as a moderate Islamist candidate to those who wanted to try the Islamist option but who would not have necessarily vote for the Muslim Brotherhood candidate should they have an alternative.

“Nobody could challenge the voting base of Mohamed Morsi as much as Abul-Fotouh. This is why the Brotherhood was so opposed to his nomination — they knew that he, more than anybody else, could mount a challenge.”

“The choice then had to be between revolutionary options. Amr Moussa was out, even though he might have been a useful transition president given that he knew the ins and outs of state institutions.”

Hamdeen Sabahi “was not an option, then as now, though he did come from revolutionary ranks”.

“I never thought he was standing on any serious ground politically. His constituency was as hazy as his political positions”.

Nermeen believes Sabahi came third in the first round only “due to the intervention of the Muslim Brotherhood in his favour to keep Abul-Fotouh away.”

Today Nermeen is not looking for a candidate drawn from the ranks of the revolution.

“The moment is different. In 2012 we were looking for someone who could deliver the dreams of the revolution. Today we are looking for someone who can hold Egypt together in the face of serious challenges — security, economic and others.”

Al-Sisi is the man “who can do this while keeping the Muslim Brotherhood at bay”.

“I don’t think anyone else is capable of doing the job.  Maybe we should have voted for Amr Moussa back in 2012 but now I don’t think Moussa could live up to the security challenges. We need someone with firm security knowledge. I think this may be the reason why Moussa is throwing his weight so firmly behind Al-Sisi.”

“Those who object to the nomination of Al-Sisi on the basis that he comes from the armed forces are overlooking the fact that we urgently need the Armed Forces, the police and intelligence to firmly support the president. We have to face the fact these bodies will feel best towards someone who was once in uniform”.

Nermeen acknowledges this could represent a setback to the dreams of the 25 January Revolution. “But we need to acknowledge who defeated the 25 January Revolution and brought us to where we are today. The answer is simple. It was the Muslim Brotherhood who, when in power, showed themselves incapable of honouring the demands of the revolution. Their sole interest was power.”

“It is sad but we need to be realistic and to think of our choices in a pragmatic way.”

Making connections

Hussein voted for Hamdeen Sabahi in 2012 and will do so again. He remains loyal to the leader of the Popular Current because he wants to see “one of us” as president.

Since the first of his three daughters was born ten years ago, Hussein has worked two consecutive shifts a day driving a taxi in order to make enough money for his family. Yet he barely makes ends meet.

When he first graduated from the history department at the Faculty of Arts 15 years ago Hussein took a job as a history teacher. “But it did not pay well. Unlike teachers of science and foreign languages history teachers have few students seeking private lessons to boost their income.”

Hussein, whose parents struggled to provide for his university degree and that of his four other brothers, was forced to look for a job that brings some money. “I needed to help my parents who have no savings for their old age and to save some money to get married”.

Hussein, who had learned how to drive during his military service, opted to be a taxi driver. “It was not the kind of job that I was looking for but it was the kind of job that brought money, decent money before the 25 January Revolution when we had lots of tourists.”

During 12 hours on the road, six days a week, Hussein would listen to radio programmes that endlessly portrayed Hosni Mubarak as a leader sensitive to the needs and worries of ordinary people.

“I never really got it. Who were they talking about? I am an ordinary Egyptian. I grew up in a family with limited resources in a poorer neighbourhood in Giza. My family could not afford private lessons, and eventually I had to put aside my university degree, which cost my father much more than he could really afford, in order to take a job that at least provided a living wage.”

Hussein had been “waiting for something to happen” when the 25 January demonstrations started. On Saturday 29 January this man, who carefully calculates income versus expenditure and who had no savings to speak of, decided to forgo one of his two shifts to join demonstrators at Tahrir Square.

“On 11 February I did not have to work at all. It was my day off and I spent the entire day in Tahrir until he [Mubarak] agreed to leave. Then I went and brought my wife and three daughters and my parents and my parents-in-law to celebrate what we hoped was the end of injustice against people like us.”

In the first round of elections Hussein was unsure who to vote for: Hamdeen Sabahi, “the man who supports the rights of people like us”, or Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, who was “also from the middle class and clearly understood our problems but who was Islamist” or Mohamed Morsi “of the Muslim Brotherhood that had always reached out to ease the difficulties of people like us”.

 Eventually he opted for Sabahi.

Hussein really liked the slogan “one of us” that Sabahi used in 2012 as is using again in this year’s elections. “This is what we needed, one of us, someone aware of the kind of problems we have and who can relate to our hopes.”

When Sabahi did not make it to the run-off Hussein did not have to think twice. Ahmed Shafik was too mired in the Mubarak-era. He opted for Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi.

Hussein had “really big hopes” for the presidency of Morsi. “But things took a really bad turn; the economy ground to a halt and so did tourism — that was the harshest blow — and the future seemed very gloomy”.

Hussein did not sign the Rebel (Tamarod) anti-Morsi protest petition “out of fear of being harassed by security”. But he decided to join the 30 June demonstrations “because things had become really hard to sustain”.

When chief of the army Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi announced the ouster of Morsi, on 3 July Hussein cheered. “Yet even then I thought to myself that had Hamdeen Sabahi been elected things would have not taken that turn”.

Hussein never encouraged customers who wanted to talk about Al-Sisi as president, not because he did not like Al-Sisi but because he thought — and still thinks — that Al-Sisi will replicate Mubarak. “He is someone who comes from a humble background but who has been well off for years. Like Mubarak he might talk of simple citizens but he left them far behind a long time ago.”

Hussein was not sure who would dare challenge Al-Sisi, who “is very popular, for sure, but more significantly, who has the state and the army on his side”.

Sabahi’s decision, after a period of hesitation, to join the presidential race, pleased Hussein profoundly. “And of course I am going to vote for Sabahi.”

As a onetime student of history Hussein is realistic. Sabahi’s chances of overcoming Al-Sisi are practically non-existent. “But as the man who is challenging Al-Sisi, Sabahi could perhaps build political influence that could somehow help the poor. I think that it is important that he runs and it is important that he gets a decent percentage of votes.”

“Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring. A few years ago who would have thought we would have Mubarak ousted and then have the Muslim Brotherhood president ousted too. Not everything is predictable. God keeps a few things that He only knows… we don’t know what the future will bring us but we have to try to make it bring us what we want.”

And then Hussein turns on the radio, to a programme where the anchor and the guests are endlessly praising Al-Sisi.



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