There are no ifs or buts about it. The word on the street is “When Al Sissi comes ...” the operative word being “when”. This hypothesis is supported by polls indicating the former army chief can expect to garner between 72-82 per cent of the ballot that is scheduled for May 26 and 27, while his only rival, the veteran leftist politician and leader of the Nasserist Party, Hamdeen Sabahi, can expect no more than two per cent. Such assumptions come with their own risks.
Those in Abdul Fattah Al Sissi’s camp could become too complacent to vote with their feet in the belief the outcome is a done deal. Secondly, Egyptian polls are notoriously unreliable because they mainly target residents of Cairo and other major cities. Some Egyptian commentators are convinced that Sabahi knows he is on a losing wicket, but has nevertheless entered the field to lend authenticity to the race. That supposition lacks credibility. He is going all out with his campaign, travelling to far-flung parts of the country to whip-up support, giving interviews to the media and grabbing as much air time as he can get. Last week, he spoke on the local networks OnTV and CBC for four hours, outlining his presidential agenda in minute detail, which somewhat predictably included alleviating poverty, reforming state institutions, improving educational standards, setting a fair wage, providing opportunities to young investors, enshrining the right of free speech and working towards a diplomatic solution to Egypt’s contretemps with Ethiopia over a new dam jeopardising the country’s water supplies.
Sabahi’s core base consists of youth disillusioned by two revolutions in three years, which failed to deliver the kind of near-Utopian state they had once envisioned. Young people make up 40 per cent of those eligible to vote but are traditionally apathetic. The question is can Sabahi galvanise a substantial tranche of this formidable sector with his campaign pledges? He is certainly trying. For one thing, he is playing into their idealistic sentiments promising to immediately quash the “unconstitutional” protest law, ensure “innocent” parties are freed from prisons and says he will run a “civilian democratic state” — in which, the army and its budget will be “monitored” — replacing the current “old and corrupt state”. Those promises are not only going down well with democracy activists, but they also appeal to Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers so he could potentially pick up a sizeable protest vote from a quarter that sees him as the lesser of two evils.
Sabahi’s programme may sound progressive, especially to western ears, but is it workable at this juncture when security and economic challenges are at the forefront? Lifting the protests law will mean renewed violence on the streets, which scares off tourists and investors. Releasing so-called jailed “innocents” will incur the wrath of the judiciary, which, despite foreign perceptions, is proudly independent. As for monitoring the military that either owns or manages between 30-40 per cent of the economy, he does not have a hope in hell. In short, Sabahi’s playbook is long on goals, but short on the means to implement them. He is saying what he thinks Al Sissi’s detractors want to hear and the more naive among them are lapping it up. Or that is what social media sites reflect. But Facebook and Twitter are unreliable indicators in a nation where the majority of the population does not have access to the internet, over a quarter lives below the poverty line and more than 16 million are illiterate. The truth is that academics, leftwing activists and pontificators on western-style freedoms may have some of the loudest voices, but they are very much in the minority.
The priorities of ordinary Egyptians revolve around security, stability, jobs, affordable homes and their ability to feed their families. They see the man who put his life on the line to save Egypt from a failed president determined to represent the interests of his Muslim Brotherhood cronies, as fitting the bill. Al Sissi’s patriotic credentials are impeccable, but most of all have been wooed by his natural charisma, his seeming humility, his soothing voice and his eyes, which sometimes cloud-over with raw emotion. Put simply, they are interested in his policies going forward — just as well because he is being vague on the nitty-gritty. They know the former Field Marshall has their back.
It is almost certain that the “When Al Sissi comes ...” brigade ultimately has it right. He has the backing of major parties, the military, state institutions, the judiciary, the media, the business community as well as the Shaikh of Al Azhar, the Coptic Pope and the largest Salafist party, Al Nour. He has also won a seal of approval from Saudi Arabia and Gulf States (with the exception of Qatar) with the promise of greater military and economic ties. His biggest backers are Egyptian women. At a recent women’s event he attended, the crowd yelled “We love you, [Al] Sissi”. Don’t say that, he answered smiling. Your husbands will be after me.
There is little doubt that Sabahi, who came third in the 2012 presidential race, is playing to win, but even a magician would have difficulty pulling that rabbit from his hat. However, as someone who has been glued to the window of Egypt’s unfolding history for years, I have learned never to say ‘never’.