Turning back the clock: Echoes of former eras in Egypt's presidential race

Dina Ezzat, Saturday 24 May 2014

Some analysts see apt comparisons between this year's race and the 2012 presidential elections, while others look further back

Hamdeen Sabahi (Left) and former army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi (Photo: Al-Ahram)

The results of voting by Egyptians overseas in the presidential election -- which took place on 15-19 May -- show that former military chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is surging ahead, taking 95 percent of the 310,000 votes.

 “We are still waiting for the vote [in Egypt] next Monday and Tuesday, but we are hopeful; we are working really hard to secure a high turnout and a high share of this turnout, for sure,” said a source from the campaign representing the former head of the armed forces who resigned under four weeks ago to launch a presidential bid that most observers say is essentially an easy ride to the presidential palace.

The competition in this year’s presidential elections -- the second since the fall of Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011 at the closing of his sixth mandate, for which he was 'elected' in 2005 -- is hardly a topic of speculation.

While the first elections to follow the successful ouster of Mubarak and a few heads in his regime saw over 10 candidates in 2012, five of which really competed hard to make it to the run-offs, the current race is confined to two runners.

This time, according to observers, officials and political activists, the result is previewed and cannot be altered – except for a miracle.

El-Sisi and Sabahi

“We are talking about a candidate who was the minister of defence and who is known to have saved this country from the destructive rule of the Muslim Brotherhood that was going to take us all to the abyss, versus a politician who might be the head of a political party or even an opposition figure, but not a head of state – certainly not at this very crucial moment in time,” said Dalal, a retired civil servant in her 60s. Dalal is going to vote for El-Sisi. “My vote is for the star – he is a star in his own right,” she beamed.

El-Sisi's election symbol is a star, while Sabahi’s is a gliding eagle.

Chatting over drinks with her 27-year-old daughter Rehab, who works at a development organisation, Dalal was sure to add, “I know that my daughter does not like this, and I know that she and her fiancé are going to vote for Sabahi, but this is what I think anyway: the country needs an experienced president who enjoys the support of the state, especially the army; the moment is not right for another experience that might prove a failure like that of [Mohamed] Morsi.”

Rehab nodded disapprovingly and smiled, retorting that El-Sisi is “none other than Mubarak's head of military intelligence. When we did the 25 January revolution, we did not do it against Mubarak alone but also against his regime. As I could not vote for Ahmed Shafik [Mubarak’s last prime minister] the last time, I cannot see how I could vote for El-Sisi this time.

“Not to mention the many mistakes we saw during the months following Morsi's removal, including the bloody dispersal of [the Muslim Brotherhood protest camp in] Rabaa Al-Adawiya, the arrest of activists and the [oppressive] protest law,” she added.

Rehab’s argument against El-Sisi extends beyond his career advancement and his role in the post-Morsi transition to his ‘outlook’. “What he says in TV interviews does not bode well," she declared, "It looks like we are set for a new dictator. I cannot vote for a dictator just because he, as head of the army, bowed to the will of the people when we demonstrated on 30 June [2013] to remove Morsi; that was his duty.”

Unlike Dalal, who perceives Sabahi as "possibly a good man but devoid of the right experience to rule the country", Rehab thinks of Sabahi as "a politician who always had an opinion to express since his days with the students movement [in the 1970s] and who has the support of the majority of the youth, who are the bulk of this country’s population".

One thing Dalal and Rehab agree about: El-Sisi is going to win. Dalal sees the coming victory as a strong vote of confidence for “the man who stood up for the country at a very crucial moment,” while Rehab sees it as “a perfectly expected outcome of the fact that this man was a minister of defence whose news is all over and who is already treated by everyone as the next president – he is projected in the media as the next president, the one and only. We are back to the Mubarak days when we were told that if Mubarak does not run the country, it will fall apart.”

Back to 2005?

For many of those involved in politics, this year’s presidential vote much resembles the one that Mubarak last went through when he was contested by over five opponents, the most prominent of which at the time was Ayman Nour – then leader of the Ghad Party.

In 2005, Nour, at the time a well-known MP and opposition figure, ended up with a fraction of the votes that Mubarak received. Nobody had expected him to win and his coming in second positioned him as a key political name, if only for a while.

“In 2005, we were talking about Mubarak, who was winning anyway, against Ayman Nour, who knew it was impossible for him to win. Now we are talking about El-Sisi, who is also winning anyway from whatever we see against Sabahi, who seems aware of the high limitations of his chances,” commented Mohamed Osman, member of the political bureau of the Strong Egypt Party and a vocal activist in the 2012 presidential campaign of former runner Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fotouh who decided to boycott the entire political process after his party members were harassed by the police during attempts to lobby support for a no vote on the constitution adopted in January of this year.

“In essence, it is 2005 all over again with, on the face of it, a few resemblances with the 2012 elections,” Osman said.

According to Osman and other political figures, there are "only images" of a race with presidential campaigns while, in reality, there is a path that El-Sisi is taking towards the presidential palace and an attempt on the part of Sabahi “to position himself as head of the opposition – one way or the other”.

“But we are not seeing the hype, the speculations, the polls, the debate – none of it is happening; the interviews conducted with El-Sisi are carried out in the format of interviews with heads of state rather than presidential runners,” Osman argued.

The Sabahi factor

According to Osman, “It is sobering to even try and compare the attitude of Sabahi himself back in 2012 and this time round.”

In 2012, Osman argued, Sabahi was much more forceful with his political positioning and with his criticism of his opponents, especially those who had served with Mubarak – not just Shafik but also Amr Moussa, who had left the Mubarak regime 10 years before the 25 January revolution.

“Today, Sabahi is not at all suggesting, for example, that El-Sisi is foloul (remnant of the Mubarak-regime) nor is he criticising him for anything he has or has not done – he is basically avoiding to talk about him except on a very low scale; Sabahi knows that his chances are limited and he is not investing serious political skills in the battle,” Osman suggested.

Mohamed El-Sweify of the Sabahi campaign is not willing to suggest that his candidate's 2014 performance rises up to that shown two years ago. However, he insists that no matter the performance of Sabahi – “who, we should not forget, came third in 2012 after Morsi and Shafik” – it is in no way to be compared to Nour's in 2005.

“Let's face it, things are much tougher this year than in 2012, in every respect: people are less forthcoming about the political battle and the general sense of frustration that came with the [failed] rule of the Muslim Brotherhood is driving many people in El-Sisi's direction,” El-Sweify said.

He added, however, that the game is not over yet and that “we are pursuing alternative electoral techniques that could bring about a serious surprise”.

The Sabahi campaign says it is focusing on the youth, the largest bulk of eligible voters, who are “clearly not favouring El-Sisi, not just because he is not from the [25 January] revolution, but also because his ideas for the future seem quite oppressive and, with the youth, we can challenge some established facts.”

According to El-Sweify, the youths' expectations of any new president are among “the very few things to have survived an otherwise unmasked defeat of the 25 January sentiment”.

“Yes, we have to admit we lost a few things down the road but we certainly have not lost everything. We still have the youth who were at the heart of the 25 January revolution; they might be disappointed or frustrated, but they have not lost faith in the revolution and have not given up on the future,” he suggested.

“In terms of security harassment and media bias [against the Sabahi campaign] we have somehow moved backwards, but in terms of the state's understanding of the serious influence of the youth and fear from their anger, we are still in a good place,” El-Sweify argued.

The Islamist vote

Another resemblance between the upcoming presidential elections – slated for 26-27 May – and the 2005 set-up is that of the ‘Islamist vote’.

“The Islamists mostly boycotted in 2005 -- with just a small segment of the Muslim Brotherhood voting for Ayman Nour and a small segment of the Salafists voting for Mubarak along with the Sufis, who are not a big bulk despite the heavy media presence of their leaders,” said Ahmed Ban, an expert researcher on Islamist movements.

In 2012, things were completely different. To start with, four candidates represented the Islamist bulk: Hazem Abou Ismail -- the Salafist who was denied access to the presidential race due to his mother's foreign nationality which he had attempted to conceal; Mohamed Morsi, who headed the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood organisation (the Freedom and Justice Party), and whose nomination was a substitute for Khayrat El-Shater, the group's second man whose legal papers were flawed; Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fotouh, who had defected from the Brotherhood over his decision to join the presidential race prior to the group's approval of lawyer and academic Selim Al-Awwah, whose support came strictly from the heart of the middle and upper-middle class where Islamism is also embraced but in a very light form.

“This year, the Muslim Brotherhood cannot even vote for Sabahi because he was part of the momentum that led to Morsi's ouster on 3 July [last year] and because he too is taking a generally aggressive line against their political dilemma,” Ban argued.

Meanwhile, he added, the Salafists will mostly boycott – despite assurances by the Salafist Nour Party leaders that they will lobby for El-Sisi. “What we saw in 2012 is that those leaders promised Aboul-Fotouh support but failed to get the ranks to bow to the decision of the leadership; it will happen again this year,” he said.

“The groups espousing the more radical versions of political Islam will not vote and the Sufis will vote for El-Sisi, as they always line with the ruler – in this case, expected ruler,” Ban argued.

2005 over 2012

“When all is said and done, the current presidential elections are much closer to the 2005 scenario than to 2012's – and yes, this indicates a political setback, in a way,” said political science professor Moustafa Kamel El-Sayed.

According to El-Sayed, “El-Sisi, at the end of the day, is the candidate of the state. He was presented as such by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in a televised statement aired in late January before the man resigned from the Armed Forces; in fact, he is liked by a good portion of his constituency precisely for this reason: ‘being the man who hails from the heart of the state and who will have its support to allow for immediate stability’.”

El-Sayed argued that the political skills and impressive public speaking qualities that “Sabahi, like Nour, does have” will not threaten the support El-Sisi seems to be garnering “anyway”.

“What El-Sisi has today even Shafik did not have back in 2012,” he argued.

The support granted to El-Sisi, as El-Sayed added, surpasses official quarters to extend into many other influential blocs, including the business community “even as they dislike his discourse about the necessity of the rich helping the poor and the need for key entrepreneurs to donate to their country”.

“But, let us not say here that we are fully back to the pre-25 January revolution scene,” El-Sayed warned. “After all, Mubarak in 2005 had been in office for a quarter century and was widely disliked; still, he was 'elected' in a fully orchestrated electoral charade, which is not the case now – to be fair,” he argued.

“The bias towards El-Sisi is unmasked, but it is not all coming from the state and the groups with a vested interest – it is also coming from those people who, scared for the future and disillusioned with the repercussions of the 2012 democratic process, want to return to the more secure option and give it a try,” El-Sayed stated.

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