Carving out a revolutionary space in hard times

Amira Howeidy, Thursday 6 Feb 2014

Sabbahi, Ali and Fotouh
From L to R (in better times) : Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, Hamdeen Sabbahi, Khaled Ali and Sheikh Mazhar Shaheen in Tahrir Square declaring support for a presidential council to rule the country on 5 June, 2012 shortly before the run-off in the presidential elections (Photo: Bassam Zoghby)

More than three weeks ago the Strong Egypt party was inclined towards fielding a candidate in the upcoming presidential elections or, alternatively, supporting whoever could serve most effectively as “a voice” for the revolutionary bloc.


The thinking was to take advantage of the presidential race to advance a revolutionary agenda and reinvigorate the forgotten goals of the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak three years ago.

Equally important, in the words of Mohamed Osman of Strong Egypt, was “to break the mental image” of Defence Minister Abdel-Fatah El-Sisi who is tipped to win the election and is being marketed by both the state-run and privately owned media as the country’s saviour and hero.

But now the Strong Egypt party is revisiting that assessment.

Hours after interim president Adli Mansour promoted El-Sisi from general to field marshal on 27 January the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces gave him the green light to stand in the presidential elections. The military’s official backing of El-Sisi and its repercussions is a game changer, says Osman.

“The military’s mandate and how it was done has made things difficult,” he says. “It’s now a competition with dinosaurs.”

Although he has yet to announce his candidacy, El-Sisi’s posters are everywhere and TV talk shows have been attacking one possible rival, ex-military chief of staff Sami Anan. Among other accusations, Anan has been labeled an agent for both the Muslim Brotherhood and Washington. On Monday unconfirmed news reports speculated that he is now reconsidering his decision to run.

Proponents of the idea of using the presidential race to encourage more critical thinking about the military’s role in politics and the current climate of repression of dissent acknowledge it may well be a futile exercise.

The Strong Egypt Party’s central committee is scheduled to meet tomorrow when it will announce its official position on the elections.

The party was founded in 2012 by Muslim Brotherhood defector and ex presidential runner Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fotouh who came fourth in the 2012 elections.

According to Osman, the party’s leadership is struggling with questions like: will they and other revolutionary groups be able to convey to the public their view that the presidential elections are a foregone conclusion and “a farce”? Will public opinion recognise that there is no competition?

“Partaking in the elections is in danger of becoming a frivolous act,” said Osman.

But the debate is also centering on the question of “who”, if anyone, should be the revolutionary candidate.

It is a discussion that is also taking place within the ranks of the liberal El-Dostour and Egyptian Social Democratic Parties, in groups like the Path of the Revolution Front (formed a few months ago as a self-proclaimed third political force to challenge the binary of the Brotherhood and the military) and among younger members of former presidential runner Hamdeen Sabbahi’s Popular Current.

The tardiness of El-Sisi’s candidacy announcement is forcing Sabbahi - who had his eyes on the presidency after finishing a credible third in the 2012 election - to delay his decision lest the defence minister change his mind. Sabbahi is under pressure from the Current’s youth base to contest the elections as a voice for the revolution. Until recently Strong Egypt was contemplating supporting him should he adopt a clear revolutionary discourse and programme. But this changed with Sabbahi’s unconditional support of the military in recent months.

Sabbahi’s allies, whether inside his own Popular Current or the recently revived National Salvation Front have already declared their support for El-Sisi. This development appears to leave the revolutionary bloc with lawyer and left-leaning activist Khaled Ali who is gearing for the elections but awaits Sabbahi final decision. Ali was a runner in the previous presidential elections but did poorly.

Shrinking field of candidates is a far cry from the 2012 elections when seven candidates from across the political spectrum competed in the first round in a vibrant atmosphere that quickly soured, leaving voters polarised in the second round run-off between the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi and Mubarak’s premier Ahmed Shafiq.

Not only is El-Sisi’s win a foregone conclusion should he decide to run for the presidency, many believe that his civilian contender will be a repeat of ex-MP Ayman Nour’s role in the 2005 presidential elections under Mubarak. The first runner-up in the election with 7 percent of the vote, Nour was imprisoned four months later for three years on charges of allegedly forging papers to form his political party.

“We are passing through a moment of defeat and withdrawal,” says Khaled Abdel-Hamid, an activist with the Path of the Revolution Front. He describes the political climate as “hysterical”, replete with incitement and hostility against any dissenting voice.

“There shouldn’t be any candidates representing the revolution,” he says. Instead the strategy should be to "organise ranks and invite people to consider the issues that matter to them."

Confusion rather than consensus characterises the positions of those political forces which oppose El-Sisi’s candidacy and remain supportive of the uprising and radical change in the system.

On Tuesday, Strong Egypt Party leader Aboul-Fotouh said he has no plans to run in elections lacking any guarantees that candidates will stand on an equal footing. But his party has yet to decide whether it will throw its support behind a revolutionary candidate in order to create serious political movement or pull out completely and allow, for the purpose of exposing "the nature" of the election, a “99.9 per cent result” in El-Sisi’s favour.

Hossam Abdel-Ghafar, a leader in El-Dostour Party, argues that “we must offer an alternative because protesting [the current situation] isn’t enough”. Politicians, he says, need “to get off Facebook and engage with people even if we don’t achieve the results we want from this election”.

Recreating a revolutionary “space” that has been eroded over the past months is imperative, “even if it comes at a price,” Abdel-Ghaffar added.

“If believers in the revolution don’t do this now,” he asks, “then who will?”

This article was published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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