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memri
March 28, 2014 No.
1079

Egyptian Intellectuals, Columnists Warn Against Al-Sisi Presidential Candidacy

By: Y. Graff*

Introduction

On March 26, 2014, Egyptian Defense Minister Field Marshal 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi officially declared that he was resigning from this post and would run in the the presidential elections slated for June 2014. In a televised address to the nation, he said: "Today I stand before you for the last time in my army uniform, having decided to end my role as defense minister... In all humility I openly declare my decision to run for president of the Arab Republic of Egypt... It is your support that will grant me the great honor [of serving as president]... I see myself as a soldier in the service of the nation... I do not promise miracles, but only serious and diligent work."[1]

Al-Sisi has been leading the polls among the Egyptian public and media for several months. The overwhelming support for him is evident in the personality cult that has developed around him, and in op-eds that were published daily in the Egyptian press depicting him as a hero and as Egypt's savior and urging him to run for president and lead Egypt out of the many crises it is facing. In addition, several public campaigns are collecting signatures in support of his election to the presidency.[2]

At the same time, some in Egypt, including prominent intellectuals, have been voicing doubts regarding his suitability for the role, pointing to his lack of political experience and expressing concern that his running for president would harm the status of the Egyptian army or Egypt's democratization process.

Other presidential candidates currently include Hamdeen Sabahi, head of the Egyptian Popular Current, who came in third in the first round of the presidential elections in 2012 after Muhammad Mursi and Ahmad Shafiq,[3]and Hamed Taher, a former Cairo University vice president.[4] According to reports, former army chief of staff Sami Anan, who was dismissed by Mursi once the latter took office, considered running but eventually decided against it.[5] 'Abd Al-Mun'im Abu Al-Futouh, another candidate in the previous elections, likewise considered running but then decided to boycott the elections, claiming that they are bound to be unfair.[6]

In the recent months, some public figures and Al-Sisi supporters have launched a smear campaign against Al-Sisi's rivals. For example, after Sabahi spoke against Al-Sisi's candidacy, he was harshly attacked as prioritizing his personal interests over those of the people. Abu Al-Futouh was depicted as a remnant of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) regime and as an MB representative – even though he had left the movement to found his own party several years previously.[7]Anan too was presented as an ally of the MB, even though he had been fired by Mursi.

Many columnists in the Egyptian press, including the pro-Al-Sisi press, have criticized this smear campaign against his rivals and come out in their defense. Most of these columnists supported Al-Sisi, but stressed that anyone was entitled to run in democratic elections, and that this right must not be taken away. Some added that Al-Sisi should beat out other candidates in fair elections as opposed to sham ones or to being appointed president with no elections at all.

Concurrently, several other articles warned Al-Sisi not to delude himself into thinking that the people's love for him absolves him from his commitments to them, and warned him not to become a tyrant – because if he does he might meet the same fate as Mubarak and Mursi.

This report will review the voices opposing Al-Sisi's presidential candidacy, the smear campaign against other presidential candidates, and statements by those warning Al-Sisi against becoming a tyrant like his predecessors.


'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi (image: Al-Ahram, Egypt, March 27, 2014)

Criticism Of Al-Sisi's Candidacy

As stated, along with the widespread support for Al-Sisi in Egyptian media, which is expressed by a plethora of articles praising him and supporting his presidential candidacy, several intellectuals and columnists explicitly objected to his candidacy and warned that having a man from the military as president would harm Egyptian democracy.

Egyptian poet 'Abd Al-Mu'ti Higazi claimed in an interview with MBC TV that it would be better if Al-Sisi did not run for president, saying: "Freedom should be given to intellectuals, of all ideologies, so that they can say whatever they like, and embark on debate that will allow different opinions and help the decision-makers. We must do all this. But if we turn to a ready-made hero to secure our future for us – I believe that this is a transgression of democracy..." (view this clip on MEMRI TV here).

Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef also said that Al-Sisi should not run for president. In an Al-Hayat TV interview, he stated: "Field Marshal Al-Sisi is commander of the army, and I think that Egypt needs him in that position. It is better if the army does not intervene in politics. Just as we always say that we should not sully religion by mixing it with politics, the respectable military establishment should avoid political wheeling and dealing. Anyone who runs against Al-Sisi will in fact be running against the army and the Defense Ministry. No one can compete with the Defense Ministry and the army. The army is a national army, and it should stay away from politics."

Regarding the idea of a candidate from the military, Youssef said: "I think that a candidate who comes from the military... People bring examples like Eisenhower or McCain, or some Israeli leaders. That's all well and good, but those people did not run for presidency a day after they left the army. They left the army, entered political life, were active in their party for four or five years and rose in its ranks, and only after that did they present their candidacy on behalf of the party. It bothers me that people bring examples from abroad without understanding them..."[8] (view this clip on MEMRI TV here).

Mohammad 'Ismat, a member of the independent Egyptian daily Al-Shurouq's editorial board, also suggested that Al-Sisi reconsider his candidacy: "Al-Sisi's presidential candidacy, and his arrival at the presidential palace, are no guarantee that he will be a good president. Thus far, we do not know if the man has a clear political platform, and we know nothing about his ideological trends and social inclinations. Will his military mentality, which means that he is accustomed to not discussing matters, influence his performance as president, which should be democratic to the highest degree? Could he deal with harsh criticism, or even mockery, of his decisions without responding violently?... Having spent his life in the orderly and obedient military [system], he has no practical experience in politics... Surely he does not wish to repeat the experience of Hosni Mubarak, who completely lacked political vision...

"Al-Sisi needs more time to rid himself of his military mentality and persona before submerging himself in the depths of politics... It is possible that Al-Sisi's only option right now is to clearly support a civil presidential candidate..."[9]

Media Attack On Al-Sisi's Potential Rivals

Other potential candidates were harshly criticized in the last few months by public figures, politicians, and columnists; this criticism even reached the point of accusations that they were collaborating with the MB. This criticism was reflected, for example, in responses to December 10, 2013 statements by Hamdeen Sabahi on CBC TV. Sabahi said: "If I were in Al-Sisi's place I would have refrained from running for president," and implied that Al-Sisi's candidacy could harm the popular consensus regarding the military.[10] These statements sparked a storm of criticism against him by public figures. Tahani Al-Gebali, former vice president of the Supreme Constitutional Court, accused him of prioritizing his personal interests and not aligning himself with the will of the public, which supports Al-Sisi. She said: "A true warrior does not remain trapped by personal ambition at the expense of national interests."[11] Former deputy prime minister Yahia Al-Gamal said that Sabahi was not politically ready and that he was overestimating himself; 'Amr 'Ali, one of the leaders of the Free Egyptians Party, said that his statements against the military target the entire Egyptian people, and that he should remember that the votes he received in the previous elections do not indicate his current popularity on the Egyptian street; and Rifa'i Nasrallah, one of the leaders of the campaign calling for Al-Sisi to run for president, claimed that Sabahi has nothing to offer the people other than being the opposition, and even accused him of collaborating with the MB's Freedom and Justice party in the past.[12]

Sami Anan was also attacked over the possibility that he will run for president. It was claimed that in effect he represents the MB and that his running against Al-Sisi would harm the military.[13] Makram Mohamed Ahmed, a columnist for Al-Ahram, expressed his amazement at Anan's candidacy because he had been absent from public life since leaving the military, and wondered what power elements he was relying on, while implying that there was a good chance that he was supported by the MB.[14] Yasser Borhami, head of the Salafi Al-Nour party, claimed in an interview with Al-Shurouq that Anan's candidacy was a real danger because the MB would use it to divide the military from within.[15] Anan rejected and vehemently denied these accusations.[16] On March 10, Anan claimed that there had been an attempt on his life, but the Interior Ministry claimed no such attempt had been made;[17] however, some still claimed that Anan was in danger and wondered whether state apparatuses were behind the attempt.[18] In any case, on March 14 Anan officially announced that unity was more important at this time than any personal consideration and that he therefore did not intend to run for president.[19]

Islamist leader 'Abd Al-Mun'im Abu Al-Futouh, who ultimately announced that he would not run, was subjected to an even harsher attack. He was portrayed as a remnant of and a representative of the MB regime. 'Adel Na'man, a political Islam researcher, claimed that the U.S. was trying to reestablish the MB regime and was using Abu Al-Futouh for this purpose.[20]

Columnists: Anyone Has The Right To Run Against Al-Sisi

The smear campaign against Al-Sisi's rivals for the presidency prompted several columnists to come to their defense, claiming that attacks on them put the success of democratization in Egypt at risk, and even distort Al-Sisi's image into that of a dictator.

'Ali Al-Sayyid, a writer for the daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm, which supports the current regime, wrote: "This love [for Al-Sisi] does not mean that he is a magician who stamps his foot to make water spring forth and wheat sprout. True, the man enjoys widespread love and limitless popularity, but this does not mean he will be the sole candidate in the presidential elections, or that he will be appointed president without elections, as some wish.

"Just because Gen. 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi has rivals does not mean that [these rivals] are his enemies, or enemies of the people. I do not believe that Al-Sisi wants [to have no rivals]. On the contrary – strong rivals will make the presidential elections into a great marathon of ideas and plans for the benefit of Egypt. Moreover, anyone who sees himself as willing and able to run for president has the right to do so, as long as he meets the criteria set by the law and the constitution...

"We must oppose this slanderous campaign against anyone who presents his candidacy, chiefly Hamdeen Sabahi. It is Hamdeen's right to run, especially after finishing third in the previous presidential elections."[21]


Hamdeen Sabahi (Source: Al-Ahram, Egypt, February 12, 2014)

Similarly, politician and intellectual Osama Al-Ghazali Harb wrote in his column in the official Egyptian daily Al-Ahram: "I believe that many share my unease at the attack by some people on Hamdeen Sabahi simply because he declared his intention to run in the next presidential elections!... Support for General Al-Sisi absolutely does not take away any Egyptian's legal right to present himself as a presidential candidate, least of all Hamdeen Sabahi. It is the right of Sabahi and the Popular Current, [which he heads,] to take the opportunity [to run] in the coming presidential elections. In my opinion, one of the most fundamental issues is that we do not want General Al-Sisi to arrive [at the presidential palace] by an oath of fealty that has no relation to democracy and will set us back. We want Al-Sisi to be chosen by the democratic means for which Egyptians launched two successive revolutions. [We want Al-Sisi] to run in real, pluralistic, and competitive elections, in which anyone who sees himself fit to run can do so, chiefly Sabahi..."[22]

About a month before Anan announced that he would not run for president, he was defended by 'Essam Al-'Abidi, deputy editor of the daily Al-Wafd, who wrote: "I love Al-Sisi, but I object to harming Anan and any other candidate considering running against our national hero. As we have accepted democracy as a principle and a way of life, we must accept its tools, the first of which is free and honorable competition. Even if you or I believe that Al-Sisi is the best and most capable man to rule Egypt, it is improper to revoke the right of others to adopt an approach that is different from [our] own...

"The attack against Anan came close to eliminating him morally and tarnishing his past simply because he expressed his desire to run [for president] against Al-Sisi. This behavior is devoid of logic, conscience, or nationalism. Sami Anan did not commit any grand crime of treason by wishing to run for the Egyptian presidency. Why are we taking this right from him? Isn't he one of the heroes of the Egyptian military, who fought in many of its wars? Was he not a central partner in the military's position regarding the ouster of Mubarak, its inclination towards the will of the people, and its support for it? Why are we tarnishing the man's past merely for declaring his intent and nothing more? What happens if he actually runs for president? ...

"Will Al-Sisi's fans, chiefly myself, [now] try to physically eliminate him? Gentlemen, cease this and do not turn Al-Sisi into pharaoh..."[23]


Cartoon in Al-Ahram presents anyone opposing him as opposing the revolution, as an Islamist, or as a lawless thug (Source: Al-Ahram, Egypt, February 12, 2014)

Articles Warning Al-Sisi To Not Become A Dictator Like His Predecessors

In addition, several articles called on Al-Sisi to adopt, commit to, and implement a campaign platform. The articles warned him against becoming a dictator like his predecessors, and stressed that the people's love for him today does not make him immune to a fate similar to that of Mubarak and Mursi.

Author Ibrahim Daoud wrote in the daily Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' that Al-Sisi should be sent the message that he does not have carte blanche to do as he pleases with Egypt: "The next president knows that his people put two presidents in prison and settled the score with them. The images of their trials elicit not excitement but only mockery. He knows that if he follows in one of their paths, this people will score a hat trick in this game, which will not end so easily. [Therefore] it is [Al-Sisi's] duty to present a clear platform and commit to implementing it... Al-Sisi undoubtedly has better chances and he receives widespread support, but out of respect for the future, we must not give him carte blanche..."[24]

Young Social activist Yasmin Mahfouz, whose Twitter header states: "To all Al-Sisi supporters – I am not an MB activist but I oppose fascism and deification [of people],"[25] wrote similarly: "Dear General 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi... I will introduce myself to you: I am an Egyptian citizen and a January 25 and June 30 revolutionary. I love you, but my love for you will not prevent me from criticizing you if you err, and rebelling against you if you oppress... I wish to tell you several things before you decide to remove your military uniform and don civilian clothes. First, your campaign platform alone will not lead to success; it is the implementation [of that platform that will do that]. Now, before anything else, I wish to ask you: Do you really see yourself as worthy and capable of ruling Egypt? Are you fit for this job? Does the public's love alone make any man the right man to be the president of a large country like Egypt? If the answer is yes, then [popular singers] Umm Kulthum, Abdel Halim Hafez, and [popular imam and preacher] Sheikh [Muhammad] Al-Sharawi would have been the best people to lead Egypt.

"Are you pleased with the hypocritical public and media figures around you, who do you harm with their words of praise and flattery, and often speak in your name? Al-Sisi, do not be misled by the people's love, because this is a people who has now become inherently revolutionary. It loves you today, but if it sees [that you do not] satisfy its will, it will turn on you tomorrow. Another question: What if the love of the people makes you become a tyrant without noticing it, and then they rebel against you? Will the military carry out a coup against you and favor the people, just as you did against Mursi? ..."[26]


'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi (Source: Al-Yawm Al-Sabi', Egypt, January 15, 2014)

 

*Y. Graff is a research fellow at MEMRI.

 

Endnotes:

 

[1] Al-Ahram (Egypt), March 27, 2014.

[3] On the figures who ran in Egypt's last presidential election, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 833, The Egyptian Presidential Candidates May 11, 2012.

[4] Akhbar Al-Yawm (Egypt), February 4, 2014.

[5] Al-Ahram (Egypt), March 14, 2014.

[6] Al-Ahram (Egypt), March 10, 2014.

[7] Al-Watan (Egypt), January 2, 2014.

[8] Al-Hayat TV (Egypt), February 1, 2014.

[9] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), January 7, 2014.

[10] Al-Watan (Egypt), December 11, 2013.

[11] Al-Watan (Egypt), December 12, 2013.

[12] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), January 19, 2014

[13] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), January 30, 2014.

[14] Al-Ahram (Egypt), February 2, 2014.

[15] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), January 26, 2014.

[16] Al-Wafd (Egypt), February 18, 2014.

[17] Al-Ahram (Egypt), March 10, 2014.

[18] Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), March 12, 2014.

[19] See endnote 4.

[20] Al-Watan (Egypt), January 2, 2014. Surprisingly, an unusual article defending Abu Al-Futouh was published by Mohamed Salmawy, former Constituent Assembly spokesman and the editor of the daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm, which supports the military; in it, Salmawy called on Abu Al-Futouh to run. Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), February 8, 2014.

[21] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), January 23, 2014.

[22] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 21, 2014.

[23] Al-Wafd (Egypt), January 30, 2014.

[24] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), January 30, 2014.

[25] Twitter.com/YasminMahfouz

[26] Al-Watan (Egypt), January 29, 2014.