Sisi vs. Sabbahi: Egypt's presidential 'race' begins

Hamdeen Sabbahi running for president against Sisi is the best thing going for the field marshal. Here's why.

Abdallah Schleifer

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Hamdeen Sabbahi, the judicious Nasserist and sole candidate running against former armed forces commander Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in the election of Egypt’s next president is best thing going for the field marshal.

That sort of sounds strange, particularly since we can expect Sabbahi to wage an increasingly outspoken campaign against Sisi as his campaign moves past the label of hopeless to that of nearly heroic underdog.

Legitimacy by default

However, the more Sabbahi is able to campaign without harassment from security forces, vicious denunciations by state media and with the presence of international observers, the greater legitimacy this election, and the inevitable victory by Sisi, will have.

All Egyptians, except for the most hard-line pro-Mursi and Muslim Brotherhood cadre, be they in or out of prison, will sense this legitimacy - not to mention the international community.

When Sisi formally announced his candidacy he wisely went out of his way to encourage a competitive election and hopefully that will dampen the tendency of the state media and state bureaucrats to feel they need to prove their loyalty to whoever is the establishment candidate and whatever his politics may be, by demeaning if not harassing any competition.

In Mubarak’s time, Ayman Nur who dared to run against him and was allotted, allegedly, 18% of the vote, was rewarded for his audacity with a prison sentence.

Sabbahi’s 2012 run

One must not forget that in the first round of the 2012 post-Mubarak presidential election that Sabbahi, who was not terribly well known outside of Nasserist circles.

While he had been elected to parliament during the Mubarak as an independent after breaking with the old guard Nasserist leadership, he was not considered a serious contender in the presidential elections compared to the better known candidates of Egypt such as former foreign minister Amr Musa or the former Muslim Brotherhood dissident Abdul Muneim Abdul Fatteh.

He was not even close to competing with Mursi and Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq. But in fact many voters who were opposed to both the Mubarak regime and the Muslim Brotherhood turned out in the last weeks of the 2012 campaign to support Sabbahi, who quite impressively came in third.

He failed to make the second round but he had secured more votes than other candidates who were much better know, such as Amr Musa and Abdel Fatteh. Many of my Egyptian friends were part of that last minute Sabbahi surge.

In part it was because Sabbahi, without directly criticizing Nasser, had made an intense public commitment to democracy as a core position in his campaign.

Rejecting crony capitalism

Around the same time, Egyptians were dismayed by the undermining of the public sector, including not just the selling of nationalized industries but also the undermining of public education and public health systems by both Sadat and even more so by Mubarak, characterized by rampant “crony capitalism.”

As a result, Sabbahi sounded like the only candidate in 2012 who really cared about the poor. We are talking about 40 percent of all Egyptians who are living below the poverty line.

However, the more Sabbahi is able to campaign without harassment from security forces, vicious denunciations by state media and with the presence of international observers, the greater legitimacy this election, and the inevitable victory by Sisi, will have.

Abdallah Schleifer

Back in the 1940s and early 1950s one would have expected a similar concern from the Muslim Brotherhood. But by 2012 the Brotherhood’s response to the increasing impoverishment of the masses of Egyptians and the deterioration of public services that had been provided to them some 50 years ago, was to call for more privatization while having a track record of sell-offs that favored business interests at far below actual value.

Sisi’s appeal

Yet Sabbahi, as a judicious Nasserist, a political position defined by the strong leader Gamal Abdul Nasser, runs counter to the appeal of this type of decisive and clean leadership.

Above all, for the Egyptian masses, this is what Sisi’s candidacy appeals to those who want stability after more than three years of civilian ineptitude, Islamist sectarianism, growing unemployment, various degrees of instability and at times even lawlessness, that followed the overthrow of Mubarak.

What I found most significant in Sisi’s formal announcement of his candidacy, a point largely ignored in the media, was his insistence that the Egyptian state must respond decisively to the problems of the poor and the pressing need to generate employment and decent public services.

I imagine that Sisi will continue to stress this commitment in his campaign, and hopefully, when he takes office as the next president of Egypt.


Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East corrrespondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspndent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC Schleifer served for little more than a year as Al Arabiya's Washington D.C. bureau chief. He is associated with the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. as an Adjunct Scholar. He was executive producer of the award winning documentary "Control Room" and the 100 episode Reality- TV documentary “Sleepless in Gaza...and Jerusalem.”

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