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A tale of revolutionary candidates

New 'revolutionary' presidential candidate Khaled Ali, a prominent labour lawyer and activist, has energised Egyptian activists and expanded the electoral pool of choices, but what values does a candidate like Ali represent?

Bassem Sabry , Tuesday 6 Mar 2012
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In recent weeks, almost every day has seen new public figures throw their hats into the presidential ring

From political scientist Dr Hassan Nafaa, physicist Dr Mohammed El-Neshaai and television journalist Ahmed El-Moslemani, to a host of lesser-to-unknown candidates, the pool of presidential hopefuls continues to expand.

Around three weeks ago, a low-key discussion developed out of nowhere on Twitter, proposing the name Khalid Ali as a potential presidential candidate to “represent the revolution.”

I gave the idea little attention, expecting it to die within hours like so much else on Twitter.

ElBaradei's decision to drop out of the presidential race was a spiritual and political blow to many of pro-revolution Egyptians. ElBaradei was widely recognised as a spark behind the revolution, a man with undeniable credentials who dared stand up to the Mubarak regime, to tell the truth and demand an immediate change towards democracy. He did this when it was dangerous for anyone to defy the regime.

Apart from Ayman Nour in 2005, he was perhaps the first opposition figure who seemed to have true presidential potential, who appeared to be untainted by corruption, and managed to generate a sense of true popular excitement. He was, at least for many within the pro-change movement, a natural leader of the country. 

But ElBaradei remained unpopular on the Egyptian street, despite everything he did to boost his national appeal. Nationwide polls often gave him scores in single digits, way behind the leading contender Amr Moussa.

His lack of appeal was partly due to his inability to connect with voters, but mainly due to a long and vicious smear campaign by the Mubarak regime.

Eventually, perhaps due to an awareness of his small chance of victory and also out of a public and genuine refusal to run for office without a finalised constitution that defined president's responsibilities, ElBaradei dropped out of the race, leaving the pro-revolution crowd in an existential search for an inspiring candidate that was not a right-wing politician.

The name that garnered the widest consensus was former Muslim Brotherhood figure Abdel-Moneim Aboul Fotouh.

Aboul Fotouh has a long history of political activism and a strong pro-revolution track record. He represented a more liberal and reconciliatory form of Islamist politics, as well as a long history of increasing disagreement with the Muslim Brotherhood leadership over their direction. He also showed strong disapproval of the Brotherhood's formation of the Freedom and Justice Party (disagreement with the Brotherhood is seen as a plus, for some.)

For many, he seemed like a candidate who could rally a critical mass around him, despite his polling numbers remaining fairly low until recently.

Hamdeen Sabbahi, a long-time Nasserist politician with strong opposition credentials, was another name that garnered widespread respect from the revolutionary movement.

Nevertheless, Sabbahi has failed to turn this respect into a considerable and passionate electoral mass, leaving Aboul Fotouh ahead in the race for the revolutionary vote. And yet, quite a few liberal voters remain uncomfortable and undecided on Aboul Fotouh for various reasons.

For example, some on the left believe that he is too economically liberal. Others fear that he might not be as socially and politically liberal as he appears to be. Some just cannot accept the idea of a Brotherhood-dominated parliament and a (recently exited) former high-ranking Muslim Brother as president. While others (reluctantly) prefer an experienced international statesman such as Amr Moussa in this delicate transitional phase, despite all the concerns surrounding him.

Returning to the aforementioned social media discussion, a day later we read that some have visited Khaled Ali himself to "explore" with him the idea of his candidacy, including one or two very credible names in Egyptian activism. Immediately, it began to appear that there was more to this than just being another idea that lived and died on the internet.

A short while later, these same activists wrote that there was potential for an actual candidacy, and then Khaled Ali himself wrote on his Twitter account that he was exploring the idea. A core of prolific Egyptian social media users instantly went ballistic with commentary. Some were satirical, some were angry over potential “fragmentation of the revolutionary vote,” some very supportive and impassioned, but most were thirsty for information on a potential candidate they knew little or nothing about.

"Who is Khaled Ali?" many have asked. A quick read-up on Ali, a long-time labour and human rights lawyer, reveals some impressive credentials.

Ali is a former director of the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights and the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, founder of the Front for the Defence of Egyptian Protesters (founded in 2008), winner of the famous 2010 ruling mandating a minimum wage of LE1,200 for all workers, a lawyer for accused protesters and the families of the revolution's martyrs, and most recently the leader of a successful legal effort to renationalise three companies that were previously privatised under allegedly corrupt circumstances.

Thus, the problem for the dissenting voices wasn't really whether or not Ali was a respectable figure worthy of support. In fact, social media (and quite a few newspapers) praised him, noted his endorsement by noteworthy names, described him as "honourable," a "true revolutionary," and "a true voice of the revolution and the poor." The problem was, however, a pragmatic one: could he actually win?

Officially launching his campaign on 27 February at an event described by many as emotionally charged and engaging, Egypt's youngest candidate (at 41-years-old) suffers from low name-recognition among the public. And with less than three months to go, he is challenged by candidates with much greater national and international recognition, a lengthy head start and a committed core of supporters.

This was precisely why many, despite their enthusiasm for Ali, have not come out in support of him. This troupe of dissenting voices believe the best course of action now would be to influence a candidate with a real chance of winning, while preparing someone like Ali for the next election in 2016.

The believers in the Ali camp (and some in the Aboul Fotouh camp as well) seem to be in one of four categories. There are those who will vote for someone like Ali as a matter of principle, regardless of his actual chances of winning. There are those who agree with the assumption that he has no real chance of winning, but support his campaign so that he (or someone of his generation) could become a true challenger in the future. There are those who truly believe they can pull off a miracle and actually win these elections. And a year into Arab revolutions, I have learned not to dismiss the possibility of political miracles.

The fourth camp of Ali supporters believe that he, or someone like him, can be the candidate who runs a truly revolutionary campaign, stands up for untainted ideas and ideals, and represents the voice of revolutionary Egypt that is struggling in the face of socio-economic hardships and human-rights abuses. They believe he would, and should, fight until the last minute of the race, in order to make sure that these elections address the true challenges facing the country at this critical juncture, and present immediate and comprehensive solutions for them. However, they would expect him to drop out before the actual vote, and possibly even endorse someone else in the end.

The growing number of presidential candidates is a mixed affair for many. It is both exciting to see so many candidates, including some quite considerable and respectable ones, which would have been unthinkable just over a year ago.

On the other hand, it is disheartening to see so many jumping into the race less than three months before the poll on 23 May (with run-offs on the 16 -17 June, and final results on the 21 June), thereby not allowing a real chance to learn about the candidates and have a true national debate of ideas. Some candidates may never get the chance they truly deserve.

While many, including myself, have not yet finalised their preferred candidates, they remain hopeful that perhaps someone like Aboul Fotouh or Ali could at least bring a degree of honesty, idealism and sincerity into the race. Regardless of whether or not either of them, particularly Ali, have a real chance at winning, these voters remain hopeful that people like Aboul Fotouh and Ali will fight vociferously for principles and revolutionary goals and ideals, rather than just the presidential seat, making these elections genuinely better as a result, and more representative of a country coming out of a pro-democracy revolution.

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Hector M
07-03-2012 09:47am
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A Tale of Revolutionary Candidates
This is a good synthesis of Egyptian politics. It is too early to predict who will be frony runner and who will win Presidential post. However I dont agree Amr Moussa as an international stature or experience. He is an old and frail man. In his tenure Arab league did not achieve any goal and acted as US and EU tool for practical purposes. Could not solve or even managed any issue like Somalia, Sudan, and amny more.
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