Q&A: Presidential candidate Sabbahi on SCAF, Tahrir, parliament and Egypt's future

Ahmed Eleiba, Friday 6 Apr 2012

Nasserist presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi talks to Ahram Online about his long political struggle and plans for Egypt's future if he should become its first post-revolution president

Egyptian potential presidential candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi (L), meets with people during his presidential campaign tour in the "Martyrs" underground metro station in Cairo March 7, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

Hamdeen Sabbahi, a veteran Nasserist opposition figure and former member of the People's Assembly (lower house), announced on Tuesday he had gathered the 30,000 signatures required to become an official candidate in Egypt's presidential elections.

Ahram Online talks to Sabbahi about the current state of affairs in Egypt and what he would do if elected president.

Ahram Online (AO): Please give us a little information about yourself and tell us why you are running for president.

Hamdeen Sabbahi (HS): I am an Egyptian citizen who is honoured to have taken part in the 25 January Revolution. I am proud to be part of a revolution that was led by the people...My candidacy is inspired by the goals of the revolution.

Every revolution must launch a nationwide revival, this is what political power must be used for, and this is exactly why I am running for president.

AO: What are your main political and intellectual influences?

HS: I am the son of the 23 July Revolution [the 1952 coup by the Free Officers Movement] and the Nasserist movement. I'm proud of being a Nasserist and a believer in pan-Arabism. Egypt must remain at the core of the Arab nation. This is its identity and destiny.

I am running for president because I believe that the revival of Egypt is not a matter of ideology alone. We have to have a vision for revival. And my vision leans heavily on the experience of Abdel-Nasser. I believe that our task has been spelled out in Tahrir Square: bread, freedom, social justice, human dignity. These are the slogans that guide my programme.

AO: What is the relationship between Nasserists and Islamists? In the past there were difficulties between the two.

HS: Focusing on the future is better than brooding about the past. The [Nasserist] Karama Party and I have been active in bridging the gap between the nationalist and Islamist currents. I believe that those who are obsessed with past rivalries are incapable of building the future.

These differences do not mean that the nationalist current and the Islamist current are on a collision course. I believe in the shared values among the four major intellectual currents of the Arab world: the Islamists, the liberals, the nationalists, and the leftists.

What was great about the January 25 Revolution is that it proved that no single current could bring about change. And no party, acting alone, will be able to bring about the long-anticipated post-revolutionary revival.

AO: What are your views on the former presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak?

HS: I have opposed both Sadat and Mubarak and criticised their policies. Under Sadat and Mubarak, Egypt abandoned its leading role in the Arab world to become a party to the US-Zionist vision for the region. We went from being a country that sides with the poor and stands for social justice to one that believes in open-door policies. We went from leading national liberation movements to believing – as Sadat used to say - that America has 99% of the cards.

These policies impoverished the country and robbed it of its regional and international status. My opposition to such policies landed me in prison twice under Sadat and fifteen times under Mubarak.

AO: The Karama Party, to which you belong, won only six seats in the recent elections. Do you believe that this modest showing impinges on your presidential campaign?

HS: The next president is not going to be the candidate of any single party. I am not running as the Karama candidate or even as a Nasserist candidate. I am proud of being a Nasserist and have every intention of remaining a member of the Karama. But I will freeze my party membership for the duration of my presidency. The Egyptian people will elect the candidate they believe, and I hope they will believe me.

I respect the choice of the Egyptian people. The recent elections were the first to be held without rigging or violence.

What matters is not the number of seats any party wins, but that the elections are run in a free and fair manner.

AO: How do you assess the performance of the new parliament so far?

HS: The parliament is operating under conditions of confusion and uncertainty. The situation will not change until the transitional period is over. In spite of these difficult circumstances, the parliament is out-performing previous ones. However, it has not properly risen to the level of a revolutionary parliament.

AO: What is the relationship between the parliament and Tahrir Square?

HS: The parliament is no substitute for the square. We have to view the two as complimentary as far as the goals of the 25 January Revolution are concerned. The current frictions are of secondary importance in my opinion. I believe that the Egyptian Parliament will prove that it is committed to the goals of the revolution.

AO: What is your view on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)?

HS: My confidence, and that of many Egyptians, in the SCAF has been shaken. The fact that it has mismanaged the transitional period and that many were killed and wounded while it was in charge must be addressed. Those responsible of the loss of life and limb must be brought to justice. This is a question which must be addressed.

The 25 January Revolution proved that no one can rule this country without taking into account the views of the revolutionaries and Tahrir Square. The Egyptian people have made it clear that no one will have access to power except through fair and free elections.

AO: Do you think the trials of Mubarak and his top aides are progressing well?

HS: I am dissatisfied with the course justice has taken with regard to the trials of members of the Mubarak regime. The people have passed a sentence of death on the regime and the judiciary should take their verdict into account.

I don't think the SCAF has played a role in the slow pace of the trails.

AO: What should the role of the army be in Egypt? Do you think the SCAF is trying to influence the presidential elections?

HS: The only document that should determine the power of the army is the new constitution. I am in favour of retaining the provisions of the 1971 constitution regarding the armed forces. 

I believe that we need a strong army that is well-equipped and well-trained and self-confident. I am a strong believer in the army’s role in protecting the country.

I don't think that the SCAF has a candidate or that any candidate can benefit from the SCAF's support.

AO: What is your view on Israel and Camp David?

HS: The sacred battle which I embrace in my programme is a battle against poverty and not a war against any outside party. As for Camp David, I believe that it has shackled Egypt and undermined its status. I haven't been a supporter of the peace treaty but if I become president the abrogation of Camp David is not going to be my priority, for I must fight poverty and backwardness inside Egypt before looking into other matters.

Let me tell you that there is a difference between respecting a treaty that Egypt has signed and acting in a humiliating way for reasons having nothing to do with the letter of the treaty. For example, I will cut off natural gas supplies to Israel, which is not part of the treaty. We have no obligation (to export gas to Israel). It is a waste of national wealth and a subsidy to an enemy who is using it to kill our Palestinian brothers. Meanwhile, Egyptian housewives are having hard time finding a gas bottle. This is an irresponsible.

A war with Israel is not something one can rule out at all. To think that what we have now with Israel is a stable peace is wrong. We do not seek war and we will try to avoid it, because we have an obligation to develop our country first.

AO: How would you tackle the problem of overcrowding in Egypt?

HS: My programme calls for enlarging the size of the inhabited area. Egyptians live on 6 per cent of their land and we should double this area within the next eight years by expanding the inhabited regions in Sinai, Nubia, Lake Nasser, the western coast of the Mediterranean, Al-Wadi Al-Gedid, and the Qattara Depression.

We need serious planning backed by political will and clear social goals. We need to focus on developing our human capabilities and promoting our natural resources through a well-thought-out plan.

AO: How would you tackle poverty?

HS: A partnership is needed between the private sector and the public sector within the framework of a plan designed to end poverty.

The first aim of the plan is to defeat poverty and bring the majority of Egyptians into the middle class. We need to remove people from the poverty line and into the dignity line.

AO: What would you do to end corruption and recover assets stolen by the old regime?

HS: Restoring the money (smuggled) abroad is a matter of political will, of finding where the money is and of initiating legal action. As for the money at home, this can be handled through assessing the illegal profits made through the unholy alliance of power and business, especially in land deals, and demanding payment of (current) market prices.

I have a package of measures designed to end corruption. I promise to change laws and procedures so that minor officials will have decent salaries that dissuade them from engaging in fraud. A clean-handed president, someone capable of offering a role model for the rest of the nation, is a must.

We need a role model. When we have a clean-handed president, we will not have corrupt aides. When Abdel-Nasser was in power, he was so clean-handed that when he died, he was found to be in debt. He had redeemed part of his pension to pay for the marriage of his daughter. Compare this with Hosni Mubarak, who has amassed so much wealth that we cannot even keep track of it.

AO: How should Egypt deal with its Arab and Muslim neighbours?

HS: I have a package of measures inspired by Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, India, and South Africa. The revival project we prepared is based on the experience of these five countries. I am particularly impressed with what Lula da Silva did in Brazil, for within eight years he turned the Brazilian economy around. I find the Turkish experience to be quite relevant. And I think that we should take the Iranian economic experiences seriously, especially regarding subsidies.

Our foreign policy should spell out dignity for Egypt and should be stable in its course. Stronger ties are needed with three main circles: the Arab circle in which Egypt is a key player; the African circle of the Nile Valley; and the Islamic circle involving the Arabs, the Turks, and the Iranians.

The (Arab-Turkish-Iranian) triangle needs to be restructured to reflect the shared culture and religion, the historical and geographical realities, and reciprocal economic interests. There are also security and strategic matters to be considered, and we must refrain from allowing any of the three sides to interfere in the internal affairs of others.

Hostility is damaging to the Islamic world and to this particular triangle. We have all been engaged in proxy wars that benefited America and Israel, not the Arabs and definitely not the Egyptians.

I believe that Egypt, once it gets a new president, will regain its self-respect and the respect of others. The Americans may exert pressures, but this is beside the point. The future is bigger than America and its wishes.

AO: What is the role of Saudi Arabia in the region?

HS: Saudi Arabia is a major player in the Arab world and we cannot ignore its size or influence. But Egypt, following the revolution, is regaining the ground it lost because of Camp David. Egypt had stepped down from its key role. And that prompted others to step in and fill the vacuum. But they failed, and as a result the Arab world is in disarray.

Egypt has to regain its leading role. To do so, it must cooperate with the entire Arab region, especially with key countries such as Saudi Arabia. The Arab people have no option but to embrace democracy.

I am on the side of the Arab people who are demanding democracy. This is their well-deserved right and it cannot be denied.  I am with the side of the Syrian people, who are entitled to a government that protects them, recognises their freedom, and listens to their views.

AO: What type of political system should Egypt adopt?

HS: I opt for a presidential system that limits the power of the president and makes him accountable to the public, the parliament, and the judiciary.

AO: Should the constitution be written before the presidential elections?

HS: There is no point in electing a president who doesn't know what powers he will have or what system is in place. If the constitution is written and the people decide that the country’s system is purely parliamentary, then I will not run for president.

AO: You are a close friend of Abdel Moneim Abul-Fotouh, another presidential hopeful. The two of you were prison mates several times in the past. What's your opinion on Abul-Fotouh?

HS: I have perhaps more love and respect for Abul-Fotouh than he has for me. I admire his energy and sacrifice. We are from the same generation and I believe that our friendship is going to last.

AO: Where do Coptic Christians fit in your presidential programme?

HS: If elected president, I will appoint three vice-presidents: an Islamist, a liberal, and a leftist. I would pick a Copt, a woman, and a youth to fill these positions.

AO: Any final comments?

HS: I believe that only those who have been part of the revolution from the start should be placed in charge of continuing its course. I am proud to be an Egyptian and I will go on speaking my mind and belonging to Tahrir Square.

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