Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—With fewer than two weeks to go until polling day in Egypt’s presidential elections, Asharq Al-Awsat sat down with candidate Hamdeen Sabahy, the only opposition to frontrunner Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, in Cairo to talk about his vision for Egypt’s future.
Sabahy was an active opposition figure during the era of former president Hosni Mubarak and a prominent early supporter of the January 25 revolution in 2011 against his rule. Many in Egypt who support him point to his position as one of the few secular candidates with no links to the old Mubarak regime—a unique position that helped him secure third place in the 2012 presidential poll.
In this year’s presidential elections he is running against the immensely popular Sisi. Though few anticipate Sabahy moving into the Presidential Palace in Heliopolis, the immense challenges faced by his campaign have not deterred the longtime opposition figure.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Why did you decide to run for president?
Hamdeen Sabahy: Because of two great revolutions: January 25 and June 30. All revolutions strive to alter the structure of power. We in Egypt didn’t get there during the revolution itself, so let’s get there through elections. The goal of my candidacy is to put into action the demands of the Egyptian people, as expressed on January 25 and June 30, transforming them into effective policies that serve the people’s interests within the framework of a strong state.
Q: How is your campaign structured? How is it funded?
If you take a look at the political, not social, structure of our campaign, you will find that it consists of almost all of the parties that emerged after January 25, 2011, such as the Al-Dostour Party [the Constitution Party], the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, the Al-Adl Party [the Justice Party] and the Egyptian Popular Current.
Most of these parties are poor, but they are the parties that best represent Egypt’s future. In terms of broad social structure, you’ll find that the new generation mostly supports us. There are also a considerable number of those who were intent on boycotting the elections, but they reconsidered their choices and are now fighting this battle with us. There’s no doubt that our funding is weak, as was the case during my presidential election campaign in 2012. But we ask that whoever has a pound to spare should donate, and we receive money from friends in the middle class who are able to contribute. In the end you’ll find that our campaign is not funded by the contribution of the most influential and wealthiest people. And you’ll find that we are not able to produce an advertising campaign of equal size [to that of Sisi’s].
Q: There has been much talk about the lack of a viable political opposition in Egypt. In the parliamentary elections expected later this year, do you think any of the civilian parties will be able to win a majority and form a government?
There are social forces in Egypt conscious of their interests, and they are stronger than the parties. However, these parties could be more effective in how they approach and engage the people. We must be the ones who empower the parties, through legislation that promotes a multi-party system and the strengthening of that system. The ability to establish national blocs and coalitions that act on behalf of their participants would make up for the weakness of individual parties. That is what happened during the revolution. The revolution succeeded not because of the strength of the parties, but because of the strength of the masses.
Social forces have the most to gain from change, and these forces still exist. They can be integrated into the parties that best represent them and are most able to absorb them organizationally. This has yet to be achieved, but it ought to be. One relevant question to this end is the proportion of party to individual candidates, stipulated in the election law that will govern the upcoming parliamentary elections.
Q: Some portray you as you were in the 1980s and 1990s, when you were part of a strong nationalist current. For example, during your time in Parliament, you described Israel as the “Zionist enemy,” among other things. Do you still stand by this statement? Do you fear this discourse will scare Western parties if you are elected president?
My conviction as an Egyptian is that a Zionist enemy certainly exists, and Camp David is an unjust peace. Of course, I stand with the rights of the Palestinian people. My job is not to impose my personal views on a very diverse state with its own interests. I believe that Camp David needs to be modified, at least to enable military deployment in the Sinai without obstruction. But I respect the treaties signed by Egypt, and I would make changes to them according to the rules of international law.
Supporting the Palestinian people is a must. However, I recognize that there is a development battle, and the first challenge is eliminating poverty in Egypt. That makes my agenda very clear. Our battle is here, domestically. The efficient management of this battle is linked to creating a foreign policy that serves the interests of Egypt, specifically economic and democratic development, in the full meaning of the phrase. That means reducing conflicts beyond our borders to a minimum by postponing or avoiding them, if possible. That is difficult, of course, because it is impossible to solve everything and have “zero problems,” as they say. But this means that my priorities will determine my agenda.
Q: What are the details of this project?
First, regarding economic development, which is part of overall development, I have a serious project to rejuvenate the Egyptian public sector, which has deteriorated. I have a project for the expansion of private property ownership by young people, especially by encouraging micro, small and medium enterprises. We aim to create 5 million such projects for young people in five years.
We have a vision to expand Egyptian construction in Sinai, Old Nubia, the northwest coast and the New Valley. All projects will be funded by foreign investment. We believe that Egyptians will invest in these projects hoping for profit, and that the state will contribute . . . We want there to be synergy and highly competent management upon which all parties can agree. In addition, we are confident of the competitive value of Egypt’s position within global transport services and outsourcing, which have very good prospects in Egypt. There are lots of other details.
Q: The fate of the Egyptian economy is closely tied to the political situation, with instability alarming tourists and investors. Do you have a vision for how to solve the problems posed by terrorism and banned organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood?
First, I’m not talking about foreign investment only, but also about the public sector and small businesses owned by young people. Terrorism will not deter these investors because businesses of this size and nature are not being targeted. Second, the priority in Egypt right now is to eradicate terrorism and reduce the severe polarization that currently exists. Our plan in this regard includes security measures. If there are those who think it is okay to put a gun in the face of a citizen, soldier or officer in uniform, it is the state’s right and duty to deter these people by whatever means and subject them to the law.
However, there must be a distinction between the state’s right to punish perpetrators and promoters of terrorism and those who peacefully express their opinion—even if that opinion is Islamic in nature. This is where the importance of avoiding collective punishment comes into play. Egypt needs to draw a clear line between the necessity of confronting terrorism and the necessity of freedom of peaceful expression, regardless of opinion. Balancing these two tasks would reduce the tension that currently exists in the country. The elimination of terrorism requires security measures; it requires expeditious justice and enlightened religious discourse; it requires that the predominant culture, through its many outlets, promotes the right to difference expressed peacefully within the bounds of the law. It needs a democratic society, because the growth of freedom, along with social justice, is one of the great bulwarks against terrorism. This vision would give Egypt the ability to strengthen security to confront terrorism, without relying on security alone.
Q: Do you support the ban on the Muslim Brotherhood?
Yes, I support banning the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization and as a party, in accordance with the constitution. I believe this is a fair political punishment, not stemming from their failure during their time in power but instead from their failure as the opposition, as they stood against the people and created an environment of violence and terror—whether they practiced it on their own or by proxy. Their presence as an organization does not make sense in light of the traumatic experience and the heavy price we paid when they were in power, and especially when they became the opposition. But what is being applied to them as an organization does not necessarily have to apply to them as individuals and citizens.
Q: The Brotherhood is an international organization and has a presence in several countries. How will you address this issue?
Part of the legitimacy of the ban comes from the fact that the Brotherhood is not a national organization, but an international one. It is possible that the Brotherhood take things into consideration that go beyond Egypt’s national interests. This is unacceptable at a time when we want to build a democratic, civilian state. Our relations with Turkey and Qatar will be determined by respect for interests. If there is respect for our interests and there is no interference in our internal affairs, we will welcome relations free of conflict.
Q: You have said that the Egyptian state supports the rival candidate. What do you mean when you say “the state?”
By “the state” I mean state bodies and institutions. There are those within the state apparatus and outside of it who control interests and profit from power. I describe these people as the leaders of the “alliance of corruption,” or an alliance of the wealth and power from the Mubarak era. This does not apply to all members of the National Democratic Party (NDP) [Mubarak’s party]. I make a distinction between those who spearheaded the political and economic corruption of Mubarak’s era and other, ordinary members of the NDP, many of whom were poor or middle-class people. Their only fault was they did not have a political stance, but rather suffered economically and socially and were part of the NDP’s audience, similar to the Muslim Brotherhood’s audience.
The Brotherhood had a very wide audience—an audience which benefitted from their charity and health organizations while the state was absent. Not everyone who supported Mubarak was corrupt, and not everyone who supports [former Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed] Mursi is a terrorist. What must be done now is to separate out those who fostered corruption and tyranny in the Mubarak and Mursi eras from those who constituted their audiences and supported them for various reasons.
Q: You have warned of the reemergence of the former political establishment, and of the return of former officials of the Mubarak regime to the political scene. Do you see any signs of this occurring?
The former regime never disappeared. Indeed, we ousted not one, but two heads of the old regime—because, in my opinion, the Muslim Brotherhood regime was a natural consequence of the Mubarak regime. But the Muslim Brotherhood made the same economic, social and political choices and policies as the Mubarak regime, and only replaced the elites who benefited from the wealth and power of the regime . . .
My fear does not lie in the idea that the former regime will return, but instead that it will reclaim its influence, because its policies are still in place. A part of these concerns stems from the fact that Mubarak supporters took part in the June 30 revolution, but their involvement wasn’t motivated by the triumphs of the January 25 revolution as the people had wanted, and instead was motivated by taking revenge against the January 25 revolution. These were feelings they had been harboring but did not disclose at the time [of the June 30 revolution]. Now, they have revealed their views on the matter. They are the ones who say that the January 25 revolution was a “setback” and they are also the ones who spoiled the June 30 alliance with politically senseless procedures, such as the issuance of the protest law, which was not used against the Brotherhood, but instead against the youth of the January 25 revolution. Some of the symbols of the January 25 revolution are now in prison, while some of the corrupt symbols from the Mubarak regime are now “floating” on the political surface.
Q: Do you have anything to say about your changing support for the Brotherhood?
I defended the Brotherhood when they were all innocent. They were my colleagues in Parliament when we were MPs. When they went to [Tahrir] square on January 25, I welcomed them. When I entered the parliamentary elections [towards the end of 2011], there were about 40 parties in Egypt that participated, and the Brotherhood was among them. It is important to note that it was the Egyptian people who gave the Brotherhood the majority in parliament, who gave them the presidency, and it was the Egyptian people who ousted them. I was with the people when they sympathized with the Brotherhood, who were deemed victims. I was with the people when they worked with the Brotherhood as partners. I was with the people when they ended the Brotherhood’s despotic rule.
Now, I’ve arrived at a very logical and natural position. There are those who say that I teamed up with the Brotherhood in the past for elections and don’t look past that point. They don’t consider the 2012 presidential elections, when I was a candidate and so was Mursi. When Mursi entered the second round [against Ahmed Shafiq] he asked for my support, but I refused him as I refused Shafiq. When the Brotherhood came to power, Mursi offered me the position of vice president, and I refused. After that, those who ousted the Brotherhood were the ones who formed the National Salvation Front, and we formed one of the main parties within it. We were also one of the main parties to establish, support and sponsor the Tamarod (Rebellion) movement. We protested on June 30 to overthrow Mursi just as we did on January 25 to overthrow Mubarak. All of this is a testimony to the fact that I have had no predetermined stance. All of our actions regarding the Brotherhood were precipitated by the national project—if they were faithful to it, we were with them and if they betrayed it, as they did, we were the first to stand against them.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.