In his former stronghold Alexandria, Sabahi swims against the El Sisi tide
ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT // Hamdeen Sabahi knows this city and its surrounding areas well. He campaigned here for the presidency two years ago – but his reception then was different from what he’s receiving today. His supporters are outwardly just as enthusiastic, but among the people of Egypt’s second city there seems less appetite for the veteran socialist, the only politician prepared to take on Abdel Fattah El Sisi.
“I’ve heard it all before, and none of these promises have been met,” says Ahmed Hassan, a 43-year-old window fitter from Wadi El Qamar, a town in west Alexandria. “I’m giving my vote to Sisi. Even if he doesn’t have an electoral programme, I trust simply by looking at him that he will implement what he says.”
Mr Sabahi, a 60-year-old veteran political activist, spent the weekend drumming up support for Egypt’s upcoming presidential showdown against former defence minister Abdel Fattah El Sisi.
It was in Alexandria and its surrounding industrial towns where Mr Sabahi picked up most of his 4.8 million votes that took him to third place in the 2012 election won by the Islamist Mohammad Morsi.
Mr El Sisi removed Morsi from power in June after unprecedented protests against his rule. An interim government has since overseen the banning of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s path to a new constitution and next week’s presidential elections, which Mr El Sisi is expected to win easily.
Despite Mr Sabahi’s best efforts, the face of his rival overshadows him at every turn. In Alexandria, as in Cairo, the number of Mr El Sisi posters, dwarfs the images of Mr Sabahi.
Undeterred, Mr Sabahi appeared in Alexandria on Friday in front of roaring crowds of youths chanting familiar slogans from the 2011 uprising. Hundreds gathered in a conference hall late in the evening to hear Mr Sabahi’s platform on social justice and democracy.
In an interview with The National just before he took to the stage, Mr Sabahi said his campaign was “the expression of the revolution that the people made happen”, in reference to both the uprising against Mr Mubarak, and the subsequent vast protests that eventually ousted Mr Morsi.
He claims his campaign has the support of “the majority and the mainstream”, in particular its youths, the poor, and a middle class “looking forward to a democratic system”.
Mr Sabahi said his four-year presidential term would be enough to improve living standards. He spoke of a plan to revive the“incompetent and corrupt” public sector into profitmaking and free of corruption.
To tackle Egypt’s unemployment rate of 13.4 per cent, with almost 70 per cent of those out of work aged between 15 and 29, Mr Sabahi planned 5 million small, medium and micro-sized projects.
Mr Sabahi said he would like to create a balance between national and foreign investments through “clear legislative frameworks for a state free of corruption.”
He also plans to implement a progressive income taxation system ranging between 20 to 40 per cent, unlike the current standard income tax rate of 20 per cent.
On Egypt’s relations with GCC countries, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which have been major financial backers of the government that followed Mr Morsi’s removal, Mr Sabahi said he is in favour of strong relations with all the Arab world and a union, modelled on the European Union, to “overcome the current shortcomings of the Arab League”.
“I also support Egypt giving assurances to the Gulf states to open the door for more investments from them,” Mr Sabahi said. “We don’t want to rely on aid but depend on opening the opportunities for investments, so that the situation is win-win for both sides.”
Mr El Sisi’s confrontation against the Muslim Brotherhood, his promises of rebuilding the economy and improving security have been among the driving forces behind the wave of nationalist fervour that has been the basis of his popularity.
Militants have carried out increasingly deadly attacks against the army and police in the Sinai Peninsula and across Egypt since Mr Morsi was removed from power and the subsequent crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood, which was designated a terrorist organisation in December.
Mr Sabahi said he would tackle the militants in Sinai through an alteration of the Camp David Accords, signed in 1978 between Egypt, Israel and the US, which limits the Egyptian military presence in Sinai. The peninsula borders Egypt, Gaza and Israel.
He said that while he would support the security forces in its “war on terror” operations, human rights under his rule would be respected through reforming the police.
“The police are a victim of a failed state,” he said. “When the state is unable to resolve problems through political or economic means, they put the police on the front line to oppress us.”
Prisons in Egypt are a place for “criminals and terrorists, not pacifists”, said Mr Sabahi, promising to pardon all those that have been arrested under a law passed in November that placed broad restrictions on protests.
For 27-year-old Ahmed Ghattas, this is just the kind of freedom that makes him want to vote and campaign on behalf of Mr Sabahi and not Mr El Sisi.
“If Sisi comes to power, we’ll all be arrested,” Mr Ghattas said, on the campaign bus to Alexandria.
As for Mr Sabahi, he said that if he does not win, he will not accept a position in Mr El Sisi’s government.
“I’ll be part of a strong opposition, because a democratic state needs it,” he said.
Before his evening rally in Alexandria, Mr Sabahi appeared during the day in the factory town of Wadi El Qamar where he thanked the town for supporting him in the 2012 race.
“I’ll give my vote to whoever is able to solve this town’s problems,” said Tarek Abdel Latif, a 32-year-old worker at the local cement factory. He complained of the respiratory problems created by the town’s heavy industries.
As Mr Sabahi and his team left Wadi El Qamar to the campaign trail’s next stop, many of the residents held up posters of Mr El Sisi.
Published: May 18, 2014 04:00 AM