Since the military coup ousting President Mohammed Morsi last July, the international media spotlight has shone on Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former Defence Minister turned frontrunner for the Egyptian presidency.
That spotlight has revealed blemishes on the visage of el-Sisi and his co-putschists, exposing their repression of the Muslim Brotherhood, journalists, and other opposition forces through detention, torture, and killings.
Nevertheless, the dominant international media narrative paints a portrait of el-Sisi’s soaring popularity among Egyptians exhausted from the tumult of the Arab Spring and spooked by the ambitions of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Forthcoming elections have been dismissed as a foregone conclusion, with pundits universally predicting a landslide victory for Hosni Mubarak’s former intelligence chief.
There are two other declared candidates so far: Hamdeen Sabahi, a former journalist and third place runner-up in the 2012 election, and Mortada Mansour, a pro-Army lawyer and head of Egypt’s Zamalek football club.
With Islamists sidelined and el-Sisi on the ascendancy, how will their fortunes fare?
Hamdeen Sabahi: National Salvation?
As a poet, former journalist, and long-time opposition activist, Hamdeen Sabahi is intimately familiar with the repression that has ailed Egyptian political life, having been jailed no less than 17 times.
In the 2012 presidential election he garnered 21.5 percent of the vote as the candidate for the National Salvation Front.
As a Nasserist, Sabahi is in some ways an anachronism. He strongly opposed the Camp David Accords that normalized relations between Egypt and Israel and remains an outspoken critic of Israel’s policies in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Still, he is one of the few national secular figures without any ties to the Mubarak regime. He self-identifies as an advocate for social justice and has called for an increase in the minimum wage, investments in solar energy, and respect for freedom of expression.
Sabahi is the founder and leader of Egypt’s Popular Current Party, which has announced a platform committed to rebuilding the Egyptian economy, protecting Egypt’s embryonic democracy, and disentangling executive, legislative and judicial power.
Sabahi faces what might charitably be described as an uphill battle (or realistically described as a Sisyphean damnation) against a media establishment that has all but universally endorsed the el-Sisi bid and an electorate desperate for a ‘strongman.’
Mortada Mansour: Comic Relief in Chief?
Enter stage (far) right: Mortada Mansour, lawyer and current head of the well-known Zamlek football club. He was a fierce critic of the activists who led the initial 2011 uprising. Accused alongside 24 others of planning the notorious camel attack against protestors in Tahrir Square, he was acquitted in 2012 and declared his candidacy for the presidency earlier this month.
It has been suggested that this formerly strident el-Sisi supporter is running in order to sling mud at Sabahi, allowing el-Sisi to hover above the fray. Mansour has angrily denied such accusations, noting “I’m not just running for decoration, and whoever says so must be high on drugs…I’ve never even met Sisi – I’ve only seen him on TV.”
Mansour’s campaign has emphasized Egypt’s crippling economic problems while airing other more cockamamie ideas.
Egyptian state-run media reported that Mansour said he would go to war with Ethiopia should it continue to build a dam on the Nile river. He is also reported as saying he would ban social media sites such as Twitter if they pose a threat to national security.
Mansour has promised to reject $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid and has called for an end of protests, sit-ins and strikes for one year until Egypt regains its political and economic footing. He also reportedly suggested that atheists belong “in the toilet” (presumably with all the other ‘shit-disturbers’) and that Egypt should ban the sale of alcohol.
Prospects for Egyptian Democracy?
Many political parties are boycotting the election and several expected candidates declined to run as a protest against a race whose outcome seems preordained. Some opposition figures have criticized Sabahi and Mansour on the grounds that their participation is legitimizing a shambolic vote.
Polling conducted between February 27th and March 4th by the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research revealed el-Sisi was supported by 51 percent of respondents and Sabahi by only 1 percent, though 45 percent were unsure who they would vote for. These results stand in marked contrast to the 21.5 percent of the vote Sabahi was able to obtain in 2012.
So in the run-up to the third presidential election (with more than one candidate) in Egyptian history, we glimpse a surreal political landscape, dominated by Bonaparte wannabes, Nasser revivalists, and imprisoned, if unforgotten, Muslim Brothers looming in the background.
Elections are scheduled to be held on the 26th and 27th of May, 2014, with the possibility of a run-off in the event of an indecisive result.
Featured Photo by Sharif Hassan.
Photo of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
Photo of Hamdeen Sabahi licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.