Can a consensus candidate be found to challenge Egypt’s Sisi?

Former presidential candidate and leftist Hamdeen Sabahi is pictured during a protest against restrictions on the press, Cairo, Egypt, May 4, 2016

CAIRO — Hamdeen Sabahi, a former presidential candidate, has called on political and partisan forces to establish what he called a “united national front” to select a candidate for presidential elections scheduled for May 2018. In a May 5 speech at a gathering to announce the launch of the Karama Movement — the unification of the Karama Party and the Egyptian Popular Current, which he founded — Sabahi said that the front must include national and partisan leaders and serve as a “revolution organizer.”

Sabahi severely criticized President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government at the meeting. “The time has come for change and for facing an incompetent and failed authority,” he said. “Sisi’s regime has become a threat to the Egyptian state. It is the worst aspect of the policies that the people revolted against in the Jan. 25, 2011, revolution.”

This is not the first time that Sabahi has advocated for consensus among civil society forces. In March 2016, he issued a statement calling on political forces to come together to create what he called “the alternative,” to advance the principle of pluralism. Only a failed state “produces one party and one man,” he argued.

Sabahi ran in the 2012 presidential elections and won 5 million votes, coming in third behind Mohammed Morsi, the winner, and Ahmed Shafiq. In the 2014 presidential elections, however, he only garnered 3% of the total votes, with Sisi ultimately declared the winner.

Mohammed Bassiouni, general-secretary of the Karama Movement, told Al-Monitor that the idea to form a united national front emerged after six months of deliberations among the Civil Democratic Current — which includes the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, the Dustour Party, the Freedom Egypt Party, the Justice Party, and the Bread and Freedom Party — and added that discussion is ongoing with other parties to encourage them to join the front.

Bassiouni said that building a united front is an attempt to counter the current regime’s efforts to “nationalize partisan work and monopolize the political scene.” The front also aims to provide an “alternative to the current policies.” It will not support a candidate in the upcoming presidential elections if there are no guarantees that the elections will be fair and transparent.

Asked about the move, Mustafa Kamel al-Sayyid, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, said it was a good idea, but its impact would be limited. He told Al-Monitor that political forces have little clout in Egypt due to the restrictions imposed by the current regime on political actors and freedom of political expression. Such pressures weaken the impact of initiatives like Bassiouni’s on the public’s voting habits.

Essam Heggy, a space science researcher who served as scientific adviser to former interim President Adly Mansour in 2013, said that Sabahi’s attempt to form a front in preparation for the 2018 elections falls within the framework of networking among “forces of change to correct the mistakes of the past.”

In August 2016, Heggy launched Presidential Team 2018, an initiative similarly focused on coordinating with political forces and supporting a candidate for elections with a program aimed at developing educational and cultural institutions, improving the economy, fighting poverty and unemployment, promoting women’s status and roles, drafting a law on civil status, establishing religious equality and developing the health sector. The initiative adopted a four-month timetable for implementing its goals but did not specify mechanisms for achieving them.

Some believe the initiative’s image and membership are being distorted by the media, some of which accuse it of trying to destabilize the country and charge that its goals are murky. Some media figures known to be close to the government have accused members of being paid to attack Egypt. Members also feel under threat of prosecution. One member has been arrested and accused of trying to overthrow the regime and misusing social media. The initiative considers any arrests preludes to the presidential election, as the regime moves to muzzle any opposition.

“The interference of some security services and their opposition to such initiatives,” Heggy told Al-Monitor, is the reason behind the failure of political forces’ initiatives to build an effective consensus and present a joint presidential candidate. He sees the activities of the security services as spreading chaos and violence.

Sisi, who is of course expected to run in 2018, will likely present his presidential candidacy as a calling as he did in August 2016 at a press conference when he said, “If the will of the Egyptian people requires me to run for another term, I will do so.”

On Oct. 22, 2016, the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research announced that the percentage of Egyptians who approved of Sisi’s performance was declining. That month, 28 months after taking office, his approval rating stood at 68%, down from around 82% in August and some 91% in July.

Heggy described the elections as a “historic” battle, should any candidate actually be able to compete with Sisi, and that he does not expect a decisive victory by Sisi, as in 2014. That said, he acknowledged, it all depends on two factors: that the elections be conducted fairly and transparently, and that Egyptians be conscientious about voting.

Presidential Team 2018 issued a statement May 13 in which it set its requirements before participating in the presidential elections. Chief among them is establishing a national election commission (to replace the judicial supreme committee that currently oversees elections), ending the state of emergency, releasing prisoners of conscience and expression, allowing candidates to hold party conventions without security permits, refraining from prosecuting members of electoral campaigns and holding transparent elections.

Heggy said he would consult with civil forces in the coming period in order to back one candidate. “I think it will either be Hisham Genina or Khaled Ali,” he said.

Genina was the former head of the government’s Central Auditing Organization (CAA) until a decree by Sisi removed him from office in March 2016 after his organization uncovered corruption in state agencies. Genina had said in December 2015 that the corruption involved 600 billion Egyptian pounds (about $33 billion), based on the analysis conducted when he was head of the CAA.

Meanwhile, Ali’s name began to be mentioned more frequently after he joined the legal team opposing ratification of the April 2016 agreement demarcating the maritime border between Egypt and Saudi Arabia and returning Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi sovereignty. He had run in the 2012 presidential elections, taking seventh place in the first round of voting.

Asked about his expectations for the elections, Sayyid remarked that Egypt’s political climate today is different from that surrounding the 2012 and 2014 elections. He said that unlike the immediate post-revolutionary period, there is reluctance on the part of the public today to participate in political life because they do not expect any civilian candidate to be able to win.

(Source / 22.05.2017)

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