What’s in the presidential contest for democrats?

With presidential elections on the horizon, Egypt’s democratic groups are assessing their options. In a roundtable discussion hosted by Mada Masr, a number of political commentators, party members, academics and researchers discussed the best possible scenarios for democratic groups in light of the anticipated bid by Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the upcoming presidential race.

A military statement by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in January backed Sisi should he run for president. Many viewed this as a precursor for the decisive victory of the military commander, as well as a potential threat to the civilian state. But, it was also interpreted as a reflection of Sisi’s insecurities in relinquishing his military uniform and assuming executive power at such a turbulent time.  

Some have additionally read the recent presidential decree, which designated the defense minister rather than the president of the republic as head of SCAF, as an explanation for the field marshal’s hesitancy to run, due to the decree’s weakening of presidential authority vis-à-vis the military. At the same time, others saw this as an indication that Sisi estimates that if he runs, civilian competition may be high.

The immunization of the High Elections Commission’s decisions was also rejected, seen as a way to control the results and produce ones favorable to the state.

In this context, the names of two candidates, Hamdeen Sabbahi and Khaled Ali, have come up as possible contenders for the revolutionary/democratic vote. Both were contestants in the 2012 presidential race and are, until now, the only credible civilian candidates who could possibly run against Sisi, the dominant state and military nominee.

Sabbahi has formally announced his intention to run, while Ali will announce his position toward the end of the week. Talks of coordination between the two of them are ongoing.

One question for those not wanting a military state is how to make a choice between Sabbahi and Ali. And, more broadly, what type of political action does engaging with the presidential elections entail?

During the roundtable discussion, Karim Ennarah, researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), asked a decisive question that determines the choice between Sabbahi and Ali: “Are we looking for political representation or are we aiming to break Sisi’s hegemony?”

Ali scored less than one percent of the vote in the 2012 race, but as a human rights lawyer and advocate of socio-economic rights, he was perceived as the best representative of the revolution’s aspirations – “a president against odds,” as Lina Attalah described him. Sabbahi, however, garnered 20 percent of the vote in the first round in 2012, and was only three percent short of qualifying for the run-off. That electoral display of Sabbahi’s popularity, coupled with his populist rhetoric, makes him a potentially forceful contender against the anticipated military nominee – or so the logic goes.

There was agreement around the table that the stakes of the presidential race go beyond the choice of president. Mohamed Menza, political science professor and member of the liberal Freedom Egypt Party, explained how the presidential race is an opportunity to preserve the political field. The emerging democratic parties and groups, he said, have been facing major organizational challenges, and they need to engage with the presidential race in order to overcome this challenge and preserve political diversity. Shahir George, EIPR researcher and member of the Freedom Egypt Party, added that the race is an opportunity to secure democratic allies, in order to be able to work on pressing socio-economic issues later on.

But not everyone is in agreement that engaging with the presidential elections is the pertinent political act in the context of a powerful state resurgence.

In fact, political commentator Bilal Alaa voiced bleaker concerns. “What are the revolutionary scenarios ahead of us?” he asked. Since the military is in full control and there is no entity that could announce a transition of power but the Armed Forces, we are left with nothing but anarchy in the place of despotism, he added. This means that what we should strive for at the moment is not political participation as such, he explained, but the creation of “safe spaces” to express dissent, opinion and to physically exist.  

Political researcher Bassem El-Semergy responded, saying that engaging with the presidential race and maintaining a political presence does exactly that: “When the democratic force participates in the presidential elections, it will be preserving the space and possibility of practicing politics, of expressing opinion, of advocating for socio-economic issues, making future political battles possible.”

Some saw Egypt’s street-level political battles, like that between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood and the other between the Brotherhood in rule and non-Islamist opposition, as contributing to the current process of depoliticization.

Mohamed Naiem, political researcher and member of the Social Democratic Party, explained how the major repercussion of June 30, where civil parties aligned themselves with the military to overthrow former President Mohamed Morsi, has been a complete overthrow of the political process as a whole and not just a matter of excluding the Muslim Brotherhood, the most organized political group. “There is no politics without the Brotherhood, and no politics with the Brothers in their current state, so there is no politics in Egypt at the moment,” he said.

He further explained the crisis facing political parties formed in the aftermath of the January 25 revolution. Naiem mentioned how the past three years have made thousands politically active. But the current configuration of political parties, he added, is unable to appropriate this force because many of those parties came into being to offset the Brotherhood – June 30 has consequently ended their raison d’etre, Naeim claimed.

What we are facing now, in many of these “democratic” parties, is a standoff between the “January vs. June folks,” he stated.

Such divisions between military supporters and those ascribing to the logic of “leave the state to do its job” on the one hand, and opponents of military intervention in politics on the other, is not uncommon within parties formed in the aftermath of January 25. This has, accordingly, made it difficult for those parties to achieve much, but trail along with the roadmap, Naiem said.

In the midst of the struggle of Egypt’s emerging political parties, the strategy of reckoning with the presidential race goes beyond the concern for finding the most “democratic” candidate or the best political representative. The support for Sabbahi, the long-standing devotee to Nasserism and emblem of its finale, is therefore perceived as a final exposure of this ideology, as Naiem remarked.

Political science lecturer and researcher, Amr Abdel Rahman, had a different opinion on the matter. “I’m for boycotting the presidential elections,” he remarked.

“What we are witnessing now is a complete disintegration of the ruling bloc; a battle between the corpses of [former presidents Gamal Abdel] Nasser and [Anwar al-] Sadat,” he added.

Abdel Rahman mentioned that when thinking of the presidential race, we need to ask ourselves what’s best for the democratic bloc: “Is participating in the presidential battle going to harm us?”

He also explained that if Ali runs against Sabbahi, the former’s campaign will focus on tarnishing the latter. “Ali would have to justify why he is running against Sabbahi, not Sisi,” he added. This, according to him, will only harm the democratic camp.

As for rallying around Sabbahi, he asked doubtfully: “Will I be able to campaign for Sabbahi, and convince people to vote for someone who scavenges on the corpse of Nasser?!”

But, for Naeim, “the worst case scenario for democratic groups is a repetition of what happened in the last constitutional referendum [a landslide victory for Sisi’s supporters], which is why I am for backing the Sabbahi campaign with conditions,” he said.

The rationale behind backing Sabahi, which was echoed around the table, rests on a number of objectives. First, there is a need not to “deflate” the democratic bloc, so to speak, which would be supposedly avoided by mobilizing for a “consensus” candidate. Secondly, Sabbahi’s campaign could possibly be steered to expose and attack the violations of the Interior Ministry and the comeback of the remnants of the old regime – even if this excludes a direct condemnation of the military establishment. And thirdly, having a single somewhat popular candidate around which the democratic groups could rally would incite participation and avoid the hazards of a complete loss for the democratic camp, should an electoral battle between Ali and Sabbahi ensue.

And while Abdel Rahman’s rationale is for the democratic power to lay low for a month or two, and prepare itself for the more important battle of the parliamentary elections, the rebuttal of Al-Dostour Party’s Alfred Raouf was: “But we can’t afford to pass out on the presidential race. We need to preserve the morale of the democratic bloc by inciting them to participate and engage with the elections.” 

Dina Hussein 

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