Exclusive Hamdeen Sabahi interview: The army should not be burdened by politics

Salma Shukrallah and Fouad Mansour, Saturday 29 Mar 2014

Hamdeen Sabahi — the only candidate in the presidential race so far besides El-Sisi ­— sets out why he is running, the task of building a civil democratic state, and what role the army should have in Egypt’s national project

Nasserist politician Hamdeen Sabahi talked to Ahram Online earlier this week about his view that the presidential election is another step towards the fulfilment of the 2011 revolution.

In the interview, conducted before Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi resigned from his post as head of the armed forces to join the race, Sabahi talks about his decision to run for the presidency, his presidential platform, his views on the post-30 June political context and what he thinks the role of the army should be.

Sabahi came third in the 2012 presidential elections after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi and the Hosni Mubarak-era prime minister Ahmed Shafiq.

He was also a leading opposition figure under Mohamed Morsi, being one of the main founding members of the opposition coalition the National Salvation Front which played a major role in Morsi's ouster.

He is presented by his campaign as the pro-revolution candidate.



Ahram Online: Why did you decide to run for the presidential elections despite reservations you have been outspoken about regarding the context and fairness of the elections?

Hamdeen Sabahi: The reason is that I have taken part in a great revolution that I believe must reach power. Since it hasn’t during the revolution and after it removed two heads of the regime (Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi) — power was transferred to an interim authority not to the revolution — it makes it an incomplete revolution. The way for it to reach power is through elections.

I believe that the country’s new generations got engaged with the revolution and have a project to fulfill. They have the right to find in these elections the person they see as representing the revolution, its speech and goals.

It is not possible for us to leave the coming elections to become a referendum with only one candidate running. This does not create a democratic system.

However, I am against immunisation [of the Presidential Elections Committee from appeals]. My stance remains the same, but I also realise that democracy in a country like Egypt will be accomplished when we get into battles to win. Not just battles over what to include in the constitution, but battles on the ground.

Although the immunisation [of PEC] leaves much doubt regarding the fairness of the elections, I think that our power on the ground, with us keen on obtaining fair elections, will influence the balance of power. It is the power of the people that will force fair elections. The people are willing through this battle to defend fair elections.

There are several more stages to come. If what started with immunisation continues — like, for example, limiting our ability to collect signatures or contact people, or being confronted by the state’s iron fist working for the benefit of a certain candidate — we will then need to reassess [our choice to participate]. If we find that we are struggling in circumstances that would allow us democratic elections we will continue, but if we find circumstances similar to that of 2010 (the November parliamentary elections)*, which goes beyond the limit of the kind of fraud we expect and are mindful of in Egypt, we will then reconsider our current stand.

AO: You would then withdraw, like in 2010?

HS: Yes, for sure. If the 2010 experience is recreated then expect the same reaction I took back then.

AO: What do you think about those who withdrew from the presidential race like (former presidential candidates in 2012) Khaled Ali and Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fotouh? Some people believe that participating lends legitimacy to an unfair electoral process?

HS: I think of boycotting as one of the options reflecting a democratic view, but when is it right?

I think Egypt cannot build a real democratic model without digging the difficult path. If we cannot prove that we are able to win through the ballot box then that reflects a weak spot. Participation is the best test to assess the size and influence [of civil forces]. But, of course, I can only measure my size and influence when all players are invited to vote in democratic elections fairly.

And as I said before, I will withdraw in case of grave violations. But from what I see now, this is not what makes me — with my experience — withdraw from elections.

Otherwise, I would be saying that I must wait until democracy fully matures, as though I am waiting for someone to come and offer me democracy without any problems.

You cannot build democracy in Egypt by waiting. You build it when the people gain it through their will power. That is how

I see the presidential battle, the parliamentary one after that, and that for local councils. All electoral battles pave the way for the revolution’s fulfilment.

Hamdeen Sabbahi Egypt's candidate in the presidential race (Photo: Simon Hanna)


AO: How do you assess the political context in which you will run for the elections?

HS: As with all interim stages, it is very complex. Egyptians want to build a democracy and they have the capability to.

On the other hand, there is a strongly polarised environment that extends beyond [healthy political] competition — that is tainted by hate speech and exclusion of the other — and those partaking in this are many.

Political Islamist currents monopolised religion and used it to exclude others as infidels, while now the same sin is being committed in the name of patriotism, and many times also in the name of the revolution.

It all reflects a mentality of exclusion based on the idea that ‘whoever is not with me is against me’ — and that cannot lead to democratic relations and does more harm than good.

The media also increasingly plays a role in this polarisation, and that is linked to the interests of its owners and the influence the state has on the media, its owners, and those who work in it. It has become more propagandist than professional.

A serious battle needs to be fought against terrorism. But the current battle, while its aim is to end terrorism, is actually feeding it by using the rightful war on terror to unrightfully violate rights and freedoms. The media plays a role in that, and so does the state.

We are used to a level of bias from state institutions for or against a certain candidate. We know how to deal with it.

However, now there are signs of bias that may be a step towards blatant violations of the right to any democratic competition, and that started with immunisation [of PEC] and may extend even further. There is, however, still a possibility it may not.

We need to keep in mind that politics post-30 June retreated, to a large extent, and instead security is playing an increased role through its war on terrorism, and that reflects on the general mood.

But there is also a revolution that is looking to be fulfilled and there is rightful anger because it hasn’t been. The people paid a great price and did not gain anything, because no policies changed.

These are the main points that define the current scene.



AO: Did you coordinate with other parties regarding your decision to run for the elections?

HS: I considered all those who participated in 25 January and 30 June — the two waves of the revolution — as partners; those who did not call the January 25 Revolution a regression and those who did not call 30 June a coup.

In principle, I am keen on talks with all of them. So far, I met with most political parties, several political figures, pressure groups, revolutionary powers and public figures, and I will continue.

Those I already met include the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, the Free Egyptians Party, the Wafd, Tagammu, the Egyptian Socialist Party, the Egyptian Communist Party, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party and the Constitution Party.

The official stance of all is that when the final list of candidates are announced they will decide whom they will back.

Other than the Karama Party and the Egyptian Popular Current, of which I am a member, no group had officially declared its support. I do, however, expect that when the final candidates list becomes known many of these parties who are at their core for social justice and democracy will back me as a popular candidate expressing a project in which they are partners.

AO: There has been talk that the Nasserists and Popular Current are facing splits, with some viewing Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi as the new Gamal Abdel-Nasser. How will you deal with this in a presidential campaign?

HS: We respect all other views, including those who don’t back me in the elections.

We do not think in terms of ‘who isn’t with me is against me.’ Who isn’t with me has a different point of view. He may not be with me in the elections, but was with me in the revolution and I cannot judge them based on such a decision.

Because if I become president, I will be cooperating with all Egyptians, including those who were with me in the revolution and not just in the elections. I am not a candidate of a certain ideology or party or current. I represent a project of all Egyptians that has been articulated in their revolution and that should reach power. A project that is more all encompassing than being a Nasserist or a liberal or a leftist.

It is fine then if a Nasserist backs El-Sisi. However, my decision was based on the decision of the majority of the Nasserist current, who believe I represent the goals of the revolution and that currently there is no other alternative [candidate that embodies these goals]. The decision was reached after much discussion.



AO: You were part of 30 June (as a founding member of the National Salvation Front). How do you see the candidacy of a military person? Was that something considered back when the 30 June roadmap was being formulated?

HS: No, it wasn’t an option, and had it been suggested it would not have been accepted.

The reason why it is an option now is that there is terrorism and in opposition many see that we need an iron fist. Political powers have retreated to a large extent, including the National Salvation Front (NSF), and that was due to varied reasons, including that they have been strongly fought.

However, in my opinion, if the NSF as the main supporter of the 30 June wave had immediately after 30 June declared a plan for the presidential elections and said this is our candidate, I think the armed forces and El-Sisi would have been happy and would have backed it. But the civil bloc and the revolutionary youth were too diverse and different. The civil bloc is responsible, in a way, and needs to be self-critical, and that includes myself.

We are here now because politics retreated and the vacuum was filled with security forces. The people cannot stay in the streets forever. They need to work. It was supposed to be left to the intellectual elite to manage the complex political struggle that followed.

El-Sisi’s candidacy is dictated by this context.

Still, elections will provide a chance to regain politics, regain the civil bloc and the building of a democratic state.

Presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi (top) demonstrates after a court sentenced deposed president Hosni Mubarak to life in prison at Tahrir Square in Cairo June 2, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)



AO: How do you see the Muslim Brotherhood, in terms of their practices and how they were treated?

HS: I believe the Brotherhood failed in power and the people revolted against them.

I believe they made themselves fail because they looked down on the people.

They also paved the way for the violence witnessed now in Egypt. They propagated it on their Rabaa Al-Adawiya and Nahda stages, throughout their sit-ins.

They are responsible for the phenomenon of terrorism and they should be held accountable politically.

During their time in power the Brotherhood showed that they have a totalitarian mentality, which works on monopolising religion.

When they came to power they chose the interest of their organisation over society. I believe that the political Islamic project, symbolised in the Brotherhood, has faced a historical blow in 30 June from which I think it will not recover anytime soon.

However, the [alternative] project that defends a patriotic, democratic civil state is responsible for whether the Brotherhood will recover [from this blow] or not.

If this model [of a democratic civil] state succeeds, the Brotherhood will be over, not only in the short term but also in the long term. But if it fails, this will revive the Brotherhood.

That is why the short-sighted idea that terrorism will be combated by security cannot work. Security is important, but the violence used in combating terrorism should be a legitimate form of violence (i.e., abiding by law). It should be a violence that protects people’s rights — not one that violates them. The state is currently using violence against its people, through random arrests, torture, etc.

Any violence used against terrorism that violates the rights of innocent civilians feeds the Brotherhood with a sympathy it does not deserve. The Brotherhood has become a victim, instead of a failed totalitarian organisation. What helps that image is that security while combating terrorism hurts the innocent.

The Brotherhood is now unpopular. Let's not make people sympathise with them.

There is a need for transitional justice that holds accountable all those involved in violence and those who committed political corruption. This will open the door for forgiveness and reconciliation.

In my view, there is no place for the Brotherhood, neither as a political party nor as an organisation. But whether the organisation remains or not is up to the judiciary. Either way, we need serious political debate that reveals the problem with monopolising religion and the Brotherhood’s right-wing economic stand. This theoretical confrontation needs to continue.

We also need to differentiate between dealing with the organisation and the Islamic current in general. The Brotherhood has been involved in violations, but we cannot have collective punishment.

You cannot replace the Brotherhood’s project except with a democratic project. If you replace it by another exclusionary project, then the citizen will be choosing between a project that is exclusionist in the name of religion and one that is exclusionist in the name of revolution or patriotism.

The country needs justice and there will be no success in the future otherwise.

AO: On the link between Hamas and the Brotherhood, and the campaign made against them, how do you see it impacting the Palestinian cause?

HS: I am an Egyptian and Arab nationalist. I am with Palestine. That’s not debatable.

Palestine is not Gaza, Gaza is not Hamas, and Palestine is bigger than Hamas and Fatah.


Hamas will only be acting rightly when it directs its weapons against the right target, the racist state occupying its land. If it directs the guns from the occupier to Egyptians then we will not forgive it.


Hamas should choose whether it works for Palestine or for the Muslim Brotherhood. And in Egypt we need to separate between Hamas and its mistakes and the Palestinian cause.


I advise Hamas to position itself as a resistance movement, instead of being part of a failed organisation (the Muslim Brotherhood) that is against the Egyptian national project and the Arab national project, and hence the Palestinian national project as well.

AO: The 'civil democratic camp'  is becoming marginalised (as shown by how it was removed from government), and little is being said and done. Do you think there should have been more opposition?

HS: My voice was clear regarding [the state’s violations], but I backed the former government because I fought to bring it to power, so I was not going to turn my back on it.

The civil bloc is paying the price of its disunity, so I am hoping that in this presidential battle we win and build a real and serious coalition of different factions. We will need this unity later, in parliamentary and local council elections. The revolution will reach power through elections.

The Egyptian people cannot be fooled. Mubarak’s men are trying to regain what they lost, and I, as an Egyptian, see that it’s unfair when martyr’s mother has to watch the return of those people her son revolted against. But in my opinion these persons (Mubarak’s men) have been defeated and will not return — neither them nor the Brotherhood. The Egyptian people are much smarter. I am very hopeful.



AO: What would be your main priorities if elected president?

HS: The main priority is that the Egyptian people feel the state is theirs; that the state is successful, just and serves the people.

The new generations need to feel incorporated in a project creating a modern civil state with democracy and social justice at its core.

This will be the key for the state’s success and its ability to face current threats. The challenge of violence and terrorism — people need to feel secure, and that requires ending terrorism, but to reach that cannot be limited to a security solution alone. Security plays a role, but it needs a political, social and cultural vision.

My second priority is breadwinning.


We need to take steps that aim at redistributing wealth in favour of the poor majority and at the same time increase wealth, because redistribution alone will not provide social justice. Complete development coupled with fair distribution is what is needed.

Third, you need to prove that you will establish a just state and this state cannot come into being unless the rule of law is applied. To apply the law equally, without discrimination — whether between Christians and Muslims, poor and rich, man and woman, and all other forms of discrimination. We have enough constitutional articles to allow that, but they are currently not applied.

To accomplish all that, we need serious projects and a new educational project that provides for a qualified labour force. Couple that with training and a new management system.



AO: How can this be accomplished within the context of the security state, which you talked about earlier? Would the security state accept that?

HS: If the president comes through democratic elections he is protected by the people. There is no excuse.

The state in Egypt is by culture inclined to be loyal to the president, but it can also be a player in his success or failure.


The state cannot confront a president and win. In Morsi’s case, state institutions did not cooperate, but they were not the ones who brought him down. What brought him down were the people.


The president who is supported by the people cannot be failed by the state. But also a president that works against state institutions will be unable to fulfil his programme.

We want a president that can realise that the power of the people can accomplish his project, and at the same time deals with the state from the perspective that he wants to protect it, not destroy it. Morsi’s problem is that it seemed as though the [Muslim Brotherhood] organisation wanted to bring down the state to replace it by its own institutions. My project is strengthening the state, because the problem of the Egyptian state is that it is weak and it’s a failed state.

I want a successful state, and that requires serious change.

Development is required at all state levels, and more importantly at the more local levels, as in state councils.

State development requires serious public debate to bring about legal changes. Corruption has to be combated and qualifications need to be built. This needs change, purging and revolutionising the Egyptian state and its institutions. The Ministry of Interior is the most clear example but there are others.

Part of the problem of the interior ministry is its lack of qualifications. I do not want any violations from the interior ministry against citizens, but I also realise that this means that curriculums need to be change — policemen need to learn about human rights. They need to be held accountable for their violations, but they also have to be trained.

AO: But the Ministry of Interior would be the most difficult?

Not necessarily, but for the interior ministry we need consultants from inside.

The ministry needs several things, to be released of many of the burdens as its an institution that is overburdened with work. It needs training and more skills. Many of the crimes committed against human rights by the interior ministry are related to inefficiency.

AO: But it's not always inefficiency.  

HS: No it's not. But you cannot talk of development of the interior ministry without mentioning that it needs development of professional skills, whether due to curriculums that need changing or lack of budget.

I do not want any violations from interior ministry against citizens but I have to realise that I have to change curriculums, policemen have to learn about human rights and violators need to be seriously held accountable.


AO: What should the role of the army be?

HS: I want a strong army; especially as it’s the last army in the Arab nation. There has been an intentional destruction of the Iraqi army. Some Arab states have completely collapsed, as in the example of Libya. Sudan is being divided and Syria is facing assault.

The Egyptian army is more needed than ever, and to make it strong the army needs to be built as a qualified army in terms of arms, training, ability to fight, etc.

Its main role should be to protect the security of Egypt and help regaining Egypt’s role in the Arab region.

It needs to be, as stated in the constitution, “owned by the people,” and the best role it can play is to “protect and not rule.”

The more the army stays away from politics the more it gains popular support. The army entering political and party competition and elections makes it prone to disagreement and decreases its popular support.

The coming president will need to respond to a lot of expectations, especially after a revolution. This should become the responsibility of someone who belongs to the democratic experience, with all its agreements, differences and ability to negotiate and to reach compromises.

The army produces heroes, but the people produce activists. Let these activists take on this responsibility so that the army is only focused on fighting terrorism. The army should not be burdened with anything else. They face threats from abroad and internally from terrorism and should not be burdened by anything else.


* The 2010 parliamentary elections under Hosni Mubarak came to be known as one of the most marred with violations with more than 86 percent of seats going to the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) in the first round. All opposition parties withdrew in the second round. The opposition won only 16 seats, or around 3 percent, in contrast to their 23 percent representation in the parliament before. The liberal Wafd party won six seats. The left-wing Tagammu won five seats. The Muslim Brotherhood won only one seat, down from 88 in the previous parliament.  

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