A voter's guide to Egypt's 2014 presidential elections: Sabahi, El-Sisi or boycott?

Ahram Online, Tuesday 13 May 2014

As Egypt prepares to vote in its first presidential elections since the ouster of Mohamed Morsi last July, Ahram Online highlights the main pros and cons of each candidate, as argued by the public

Sabahi & Sisi
Egypt's two presidential contenders Sabahi and Sisi

The clock is ticking to Egypt’s first post-30 June 2013 presidential elections in an atmosphere that many would argue is different from that of the 2012 poll — the first after the January 25 Revolution — that brought Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi to power.

This year’s election sees only two candidates running against each other, giving the public less variety to choose from, but more surety of the result. In comparison to the 2012 election where 13 candidates represented a spectrum of political ideologies, this year Egyptians are choosing between former army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, seen as the country's current most popular figure, since he announced the ouster of Morsi last summer, and his only rival, long-time activist and member of the pro-democracy movement in Egypt that paved the way for the January 25 Revolution, Hamdeen Sabahi.

The presidential poll is due to take place 26-27 May with a new president expected to be named early June.

While many, both supporters and critics, deem the outcome already decided in favour of El-Sisi, others beg to differ, saying there is always room for a surprise.

In this guide, Ahram Online attempts to collate the different arguments made by people in the streets of Egypt on "To vote or not to vote" and "Vote for who, why, and why not the rival." The views expressed should not be taken as a reflection of the views of Ahram Online.

Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi

Field Marshal El-Sisi (formerly general, until early this year) was appointed minister of defence two years ago by the same man whose ouster he announced — Mohamed Morsi — as part of a political roadmap worked out with the opposition. In March, 59-year-old El-Sisi ended speculation around his candidacy by announcing that he had decided to bid farewell to military life and "answer the calls of the people" to run in the presidential elections.

Why people say you should vote for El-Sisi

- For decades the military institution in Egypt has proven to be the most cohesive and strongest institution in Egypt. This argument leaves many believing that El-Sisi, who served over 45 years in the armed forces, will have the army to back him whenever needed. In interview, the presidential hopeful has affirmed that the army will continue to help in "economic developmental projects."

- For those who accuse the Muslim Brotherhood of embracing a sectarian discourse following their rise to power, and Morsi of drastically failing in running the country, El-Sisi is the "national hero" who saved Egypt from the Islamists' power grab by announcing the ouster of the Islamist leader Morsi last summer. He further promised to get rid of the Islamist group for good, stressing that there is no room for reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood.

- Supporters of El-Sisi see him as a figure of "national independence" who regained Egypt’s dignity, particularly by not giving into US pressure, which has been highly critical of Morsi’s ouster and the crackdown on his loyalists that followed, withholding a large chunk of its annual $1.3 billion military aid to Egypt to express its displeasure at the crackdown on Morsi supporters.

- For the above reasons, El-Sisi is often compared to Egypt’s late president Gamal Abdel Nasser, the architect behind the 1952 coup d’etat / revolution that overthrew the monarchy. Nasser, who remains a symbol for dignity, pan-Arabism and social justice, also launched a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and executed six of its leading members for plotting to assassinate him.

- In addition to having the army on his side, supporters say El-Sisi is real "statesman" who is well informed on everything concerning Egypt. All state apparatuses will cooperate with him if he rules, enhancing his capacity to bring stability to the country.

- El-Sisi is an observant, moderate Muslim who is vocal in his support for the right of Copts to equal citizenship. Due to his perceived role in Morsi’s ouster, many Christians in Egypt feel grateful to him for saving them from the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, under which there were frequent sectarian assaults, including the first attack ever on the main Coptic Cathedral in Egypt.

- Being on good terms with oil-rich countries will bring in more aid and investment from Gulf States that applauded Morsi’s ouster, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. El-Sisi strongly thanked Gulf countries for the billions they poured into the country to boost the economy following last summer’s political turmoil.

- El-Sisi is pragmatic, supporters say, when he speaks about what he has to offer to Egyptians. He makes realistic promises by acknowledging the country’s limitations. Unlike Morsi, who vowed that people would see drastic changes in his first 100 days in office, El-Sisi says he needs two years to make an impact.

- Some see El-Sisi’s lack of political affiliation as a plus. His only loyalty is to Egypt, supporters argue. The ex-minister of defence has never spoke of embracing certain political ideologies.

Why people say you should not vote for El-Sisi

- El-Sisi’s candidacy brings us back to square one, some argue, especially icons from the January 25 Revolution who accuse the ex-army chief of bringing back the iron fist of the state by orchestrating a crackdown not only on Islamists but also secular and leftist activists.

- Another critique is that El-Sisi was a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that ruled following the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, and hence he should be held accountable for the detention of thousands of peaceful protesters, in addition to the torture and killing of anti-government demonstrators. 

- Many loyalists of the regime of ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak have voiced their support for El-Sisi’s candidacy, raising speculation on how influential they are in his campaign and his future rule. According to media reports, a coordinator of El-Sisi’s bid in Alexandria recently resigned in protest at the dominance of remnants of the Mubarak regime in the El-Sisi campaign.

- "Sisi is a murderer" is a phrase that has been spread across Egyptian governorates by loyalists to Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, who hold the ex-army chief responsible for the bloody dispersal of the pro-Morsi camps in Rabaa Al-Adawyia and Al-Nahda squares, in Cairo and Giza respectively, that claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians.

- If El-Sisi wins this presidential race it would be proof that the July ouster of Mohamed Morsi was coup d’etat and not a popular uprising. Bringing the minister of defence to power annuls any hope for democracy in Egypt, critics say.

- There is a growing fear among those who closely follow interviews and leaks of the presidential candidate that he is leaning towards implementing austerity measures in Egypt, an option that may provoke uproar among Egyptians who already suffering from spikes in prices and a country that is haunted by growing poverty.

Hamdeen Sabahi

A 59-year-old who was among those who spearheaded popular movements that lead to the ouster of both Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and his successor, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013, Nasserist Sabahi is once again trying his luck in the presidential race after he garnered  20.7 percent of the vote in the 2012 poll.

Why people say you should vote for Sabahi

- A long-time pro-democracy and anti-corruption activist, Sabahi is a real representative of the January 25 Revolution, supporters say, who has been in line with its goals since its eruption, and he has the support of the majority of pro-revolution political parties.

- Sabahi holds a leftist agenda that is exactly what Egypt needs following decades of neoliberal economic policies that jeopardised the rights of the poor.

- Many of Sabahi’s supporters strongly believe that he has a chance to win the race in spite of criticism from his campaign members that the state is biased to his rival, El-Sisi. His supporters give as an example his performance in the 2012 presidential poll, where Sabahi, later described as the "black horse" of the race, unexpectedly came third behind Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi and Mubarak era minister of civil aviation Ahmed Shafiq.

- Sabahi, whose campaign sports the slogan "One of us," is believed by some to be favoured among the poor, given his working class background where he grew up in the Nile Delta’s Kafr El-Sheikh, among peasants and fishermen. The leftist candidate has always posed as "the candidate of the poor," emphasising that fighting poverty is at the top of his political agenda.

- Along with millions of Egyptians and prominent figures from the January 25 Revolution, Sabahi played a vital role in the ouster of Morsi. He co-founded the National Salvation Front, the main opposition coalition credited with the removal of the Islamist president from power, and youth members of his Egyptian Popular Current were side by side with revolutionaries who organised protests against what they saw as Morsi’s authoritarian rule.

- Sees late president Gamal Abdel Nasser — who prioritised social justice — as a role model that he wishes to emulate whilst acknowledging the drawbacks of that era and promising to fight dictatorship and the militarisation of the state.

- One of the strongest arguments made for Sabahi is that he has remained loyal to his principles that advocate social justice, pan-Arabism, and oppose subordination to the US and acknowledgment of the State of Israel since the beginning of his political career in the 1970s until today. He was a vocal critic and was imprisoned under the rule of both Egyptian presidents Anwar El-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak for his political and labour activism.

- Many describe Sabahi as a secular candidate who holds progressive views on freedoms and the rights of women and minorities in Egypt.

Why vote for Sabahi against El-Sisi

A bulk of Sabahi's supporters are motivated by their opposition to former army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. 

- El-Sisi’s victory in these elections, some say, would mean going back to an undemocratic military state that many argue has had a principal role in the deterioration of political life in Egypt. For that, many plan to give their vote to a civilian candidate — Sabahi.

- The choices are limited, but among the two he is the only one that represents the revolution camp.

- He vowed to revoke the protest law, which has sent thousands — including non-Islamist activists along with loyalists to deposed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi — behind bars since it was issued last November, unlike his rival, El-Sisi, who when was asked about the controversial law said he strongly supported it because it protects the state.

- Participation is necessary; we can’t turn the elections into a referendum on one man. That would threaten the future of democracy in Egypt.

- Some are backing Sabahi with very little hope that he could actually win. They argue their votes will eventually build a platform for a future opposition against El-Sisi.

Why people say you should not vote for Sabahi

- While loyalists of the Mubarak regime in the media have lead a smear campaign against Sabahi, leaving many believing that he is the Muslim Brotherhood's "secret candidate," others claim he is in fact "a puppet candidate placed by the state to give the race legitimacy."

- We’re still paying the price of the shortcomings of the Nasserist era, some say. We can’t, therefore, risk voting for a Nasserist candidate.

- Human rights defenders, Islamists and some secular activists blame Sabahi for remaining silent or being "weak" in the face of violations committed by Egypt's interim authorities post-30 June, including the bloody dispersal of two pro-Morsi protest camps that left hundreds dead.

- Others insist that Sabahi is not the man for the coming stage, saying he is not competent enough and tends to lack vision or a realistic approach to the current situation in Egypt — in addition to being unfamiliar with the system and that state institutions could stand against him, as they did against Morsi.

- No one likes to vote for a losing contender, say those who are certain of El-Sisi’s victory. They also highlight the fact that Sabahi was abandoned by those who were once staunch supporters of his 2012 presidential bid and are now in El-Sisi’s camp.

- His pro-Palestine, anti-Israel stances and criticism of the US will only bring us trouble, some say.

Why boycott?

- The general atmosphere is not democracy-friendly and will not bring fair and credible elections, say many who accuse the media and state apparatuses of vocally campaigning for El-Sisi.

- Muslim Brotherhood members and their allies have tagged the upcoming elections as "illegitimate" and that deposed president Mohamed Morsi remains the country's constitutional head of state.

- Participating in this presidential race says that participants approve of the violations of human rights and democratic ideals by interim authorities, according to pro-democracy activists.

- Three years of elections have brought us nowhere; no change will come from the ballot box, say others.

* This article was inspired by the 2012 presidential elections guide written by the late Bassem Sabry.

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