Hamdeen Sabbahi’s Political Initiative Finds Little Support

Former presidential candidate, Hamdeen Sabbahi, came under significant criticism with the launch of an initiative aimed at a unified political force. He described it as an alternative to the policies of the current regime and to those of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Sabbahi announced the initiative on March 4 under the banner of “Let’s Build an Alternative,”   saying that—at a time when Egypt is facing the dangers of terrorism, and an attempt to reverse the achievements of the January 25, 2011 Revolution—there was an “immediate need” to create an alternative to the policies of “the current authoritarian regime, and the Muslim Brotherhood who want to claim that they were the only serious opposition.” He added that the initiative was the result of extensive talks over the past year among several prominent political figures, among them Ammar Ali Hassan, Maasoum Marzouk, Amr Helmy and Raed Salama. He added that he could not claim that it as his own.

“This is not my initiative alone, but that of several national figures who believe that Egypt needed a strong political party or front,” Sabbahi said a few days after he had made the announcement. “The Egyptian people need a political organization that reflects their aspirations, and unites all forces that believe in the January 25 Revolution, and who do not see June 30, 2013 [the uprising against Morsi] as a military coup,” he added.

Sabbahi added, “Egypt’s severe economic difficulties, lack of social justice, and deteriorating human rights conditions, resulting in the imprisonment of hundreds of young people who believe in the need for real change, were also among the main reasons that pushed him, and other political figures, to launch the initiative.

The idea, however, was attacked both by supporters and opponents of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Sisi’s supporters, among them MP Mustafa Bakri, do not believe there is an “alternative” to the president whom they credit with saving the country from collapse and civil war due to the failed policies of former President, and Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohamed Morsi. Sisi, while serving as defense minister, forcibly removed Morsi on July 3, 2013 after massive demonstrations against Brotherhood rule. They claimed that [NM1] Sabbahi’s call for an ‘alternative’ incorrectly implied that the president’s current policies have failed, pointing to what they described as several megaprojects likely to yield lucrative returns in the long term.

Meanwhile, the younger generation of leftists—among them the April 6 Youth Movement and the Revolutionary Socialists—accused the veteran politician, who ran in both the 2012 and 2014 presidential elections, of seeking to remain in the limelight and to claim his place as leader of the opposition. They said that calling for “uniting” all parties in one single new entity, regardless of ideological differences, also seemed contrary to the principle of pluralism and democracy itself, according to Sabbahi’s critics. They also noted that believing in the principles of the January 25, 2011 Revolution that ended the 30-year rule of former President Hosni Mubarak, and seeking to build a “civilian, modern and democratic state,” was not enough to create a single party, as differences remained on political, economic, and social issues.

Sabbahi’s initiative also comes less than two months after he delivered a rare, lengthy interview in which he criticized the president’s economic and political policies, saying they were identical to those of Mubarak, and were likely to yield the same results. The interview was not only widely attacked by the same groups, but also led to a little-known lawyer, Ashraf Farahat, to file a complaint to the Prosecutor General against Sabbahi, accusing him of seeking to overthrow the government and inciting violence. While filing complaints against Sisi’s opponents has become common practice among certain lawyers—the vast majority of which are shelved or ignored—Prosecutor General Nabil Sadeq referred this complaint on February 16 for further investigation. This means that, if the investigators find that there is enough evidence to support the lawyer’s complaint, formal charges could be brought against Sabbahi.

Salah Hasaballah, a Member of Parliament and president of the small party, Al-Horreya (Freedom) Party, that supports Sisi, told EgyptSource that Sabbahi “had no right to call for an alternative to the current regime. It is our job in parliament as MPs directly elected by the people to suggest alternative policies and legislations.” He asked, “What does Sabbahi mean by demanding an alternative? Does he want to remove the current president who was elected by a vast 97 percent majority, and has hardly finished the first half of his first (four-year) term? What Sabbahi is suggesting is simply ridiculous.” Hasaballah added that Sabbahi’s call to unite all parties opposing the president’s policies in one organization was an attempt to form a new “National Salvation Front (NSF)” was in the making. The NSF united all secular parties that opposed the Brotherhood’s rule, and called for his removal.

In statements to reporters on Sunday at the headquarters of Karama Party, Sabbahi denied that he was seeking to form a new NSF or to remove the president. He pointed to his 2014 presidential bid, as the only politician who agreed to run against Sisi and immediately conceded defeat. He said the main aim of the initiative is to unite the ranks of the Karama Party and the Popular Trend, two Nasserist political organizations he founded, while opening the door for other parties, unions, and NGOs that share the same goals to join. While both were established by Sabbahi, the Karama Party, founded in 1996 under former President Hosni Mubarak, is controlled mainly by the older generation of Nasserists. The Popular Current, formed during the 2012 presidential elections also with the aim of uniting all political forces and dominated primarily by a younger generation of Nasserists who disagree with the Karama Party’s older leadership over political freedoms, never finalized the required legal papers needed to form a political party.

The response from other political parties, however, was not positive, including Sabbahi’s own allies. After Sabbahi’s loss to Sisi in the 2014 elections, he formed an alliance made up of six political parties that had supported his campaign, called the Democratic Trend Alliance. The group included the Dostour Party, the Karama Party, the Popular Socialist Alliance, the Popular Trend, al-Adl (Justice) and Egypt Freedom (Misr al-Horreya) According to informed sources, although members of the Democratic Alliance had repeatedly discussed the possibility of upgrading their cooperation, and possibly forming one party at a time when they were all suffering from limited financial resources, many of them did not welcome Sabbahi’s initiative.

“We were not informed in advance of Sabbahi’s intention to launch this initiative,” said Medhat al-Zahed, acting president of the Popular Socialist Alliance Party. “Indeed, there is a need to coordinate and increase the level of cooperation and joint action by all parties that believe in the January 25 Revolution and social justice, but we disagree with the proposal of forming one big political party. This is against the principles of diversity and pluralism that we have long fought for,” Zahed told EgyptSource.

While Sabbahi’s call for a new political party reflect a growing sense of dissatisfaction with Sisi’s policies, and more willingness by opposition to speak out, many experts believe it is unlikely to results in any major changes in the political scene. Cairo University Professor Hassan Nafa’a described the ultimate goal of early presidential elections as illogical. Many of the younger opposition members do not believe in Sabbahi, or his Nasserist ideology. They accuse him of repeatedly seeking to play the middle ground, and waiting until the last minute before attempting to assume the position of leader of the opposition and speaking out, leaving him with little credibility.

Khaled Dawoud is currently Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Al-Ahram Weekly, an English language weekly published by Egypt’s oldest news establishment, Al-Ahram. He is also the former official spokesman of social-liberal Al-Dostour Party established by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei.

Image: Photo: Egypt Independent