Even though it’s just a two-man race, the choice in Egypt’s presidential elections is not so clear-cut.
In less than a week, Egyptians will be voting in a presidential election much different from any other poll they have gone to before. This year, two candidates are running, the norm almost anywhere else. In Egypt, though, this two-person format is novel. In the last vote two years ago, 13 candidates entered the fray. Before that, Hosni Mubarak was granted the presidency by default in 1981 after Anwar Al-Sadat was assassinated, then was re-elected four times the following 30 years, in yes or no referendums of questionable validity. When Mubarak did win a multiple candidate election it was by a margin hard to believe, so despised had his dynasty become. Sadat remained in the job by virtue of plebiscites. During his 14-year tenure at the helm, Gamal Abdel-Nasser was never elected.
Next week, in this new post-revolution way of doing things, voters will choose between former defence minister Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi. No matter how much of an attempt is made to remain neutral – and most people are not making much of an attempt these days – it is hard not to call Al-Sisi the firm favourite, riding as he is on the strength of having helped oust Mohamed Morsi as president along with the rest of the Muslim Brotherhood.
So adored has Al-Sisi become – it would not be a stretch to say revered – that until very recently he was set to become the first presidential candidate in the history of interviews not to be interviewed before an election. Few of the millions who support him seem to mind that they do not know him well, that his rare public and media appearances make him an enigma and that they have very little insight into his personality. So popular has he become that there apparently is no need for microphones, lights and cameras, no need to know the man or his campaign platform.
Nevertheless, Al-Sisi finally decided to give a few TV interviews, in part to cast off the shoo-in image the media and the public at large have bestowed upon him.
Sabahi has, meantime, appeared in the media dozens of times, losing no opportunity to appear in print and on the air. Yet he remains not nearly as popular as Al-Sisi and as such would have to be regarded as most unlucky. Having finished third in the 2012 elections, Sabahi would logically have won this round because the two who finished ahead of him are not around this time. But Al-Sisi came out of nowhere to steal not only the limelight but what could have been a Sabahi presidency.
Still, Sabahi, a former parliamentarian, is a serious challenger to Al-Sisi as he reflects the revolutionaries who toppled Mubarak and who aim to achieve “bread, freedom and social justice” – the demands of millions of protesters who ousted him.
The problem with Sabahi is that he always seems to garner votes not because voters genuinely want him but because they don’t want his rivals. It happened in 2012. So many of his votes were collected because people were either fearful of electing an Islamist for president as Morsi or loathe to an extension of the Mubarak regime in the persona of cabinet stalwart Ahmed Shafik.
This time around, again many of Sabahi’s votes will not all come due to his own merits but to block his opponent. After Morsi’s fall, the MB and its sympathisers do not want the man who helped depose him. Neither is Al-Sisi in the good books of the revolutionary youth who reject the slightest whiff of a military-like state, one which they threw out but which they firmly believe will rise again if led by a military man, even if he has shed his kaki uniform. In both cases, they will go with Sabahi.
Al-Sisi offers no such contradictions. A vote for him stems from a sincere belief he can help the country stand on its feet. Where he lacks political acumen, his supporters attest it is made up for with an army background, assumed an asset when he starts to tackle security issues, upon which all else follows, be it economic progress or overall stability.
In essence, with Al-Sisi you get what you see while voting for Sabahi is something akin to voting for second best.