Hamdeen Sabbahi’s strategy and prospects

When Egyptians head to the polls on 26-27 May, Abdul Fattah Al Sisi is widely expected to win by a landslide. His sole opponent, Hamdeen Sabbahi, is seen to stand little to no chance of winning or even gaining a significant portion of the votes. This has led some to question why he decided to run in the first place, if the odds are so evidently slim.

Faced with such overwhelming odds, what sort of approach will serve Sabbahi best? If not to win, then at least to gain a large enough share of the vote to establish himself as the only real opposition, something he has vowed to do in the event of his defeat.

If the powers-of-attorney are anything to go by, Sabbahi really does not have a hope. While Sabbahi collected 31,555 signatures, Sisi managed to get 188,930. So out of a total of 220,485 signatures, only 14.3 percent were for Sabbahi. Can he do better in the actual elections? It may be possible, but whether or not it is likely is a moot point.

A recent poll conducted by Egyptian Al-Watan newspaper showed Sisi and Sabbahi almost neck-and-neck. Sabbahi initially had a small lead over Sisi, at 51 to Sisi’s 49 percent, until Sisi climbed a few more points to overtake him. Naturally, the representational accuracy of this poll cannot be verified.

Out of Egypt’s political parties and associations, at least six have backed Sabbahi: his own Karama Party, the Dostour Party, the Al-Adl Party, the Popular Current, the Social Popular Alliance Party, and the Revolutionary Socialists. Unfortunately for him, these parties do not represent a considerable portion of the population.

Egypt does have one untapped electoral resource that Sabbahi would be wise to exploit: Egypt’s disillusioned and politically apathetic youth. Only the final voter turnout results will tell for sure, but there is certainly a degree of political apathy, among the youth in particular. If Sabbahi can appeal to this segment of the population, he stands to gain a huge number of votes. When one takes into consideration that the average age in Egypt is 25 years, appealing to this group makes a lot of sense.

Furthermore, there are those who opposed the ouster of President Muhammad Morsi. In a recent leaked telephone call, Sabbahi apparently said that he would put Sisi on trial if he became president. He said that this was not out of any conviction of Sisi’s guilt, but to serve the course of justice. Although the authenticity of this leaked call remains unverified, such a claim might persuade some opponents of Morsi’s removal to vote for Sabbahi.

Sabbahi has also vowed to release activists who have been wrongly detained.

The Muslim Brotherhood is not an option for Sabbahi as far as electoral support goes. While his leaked phone call might be appealing to them, he recently confirmed that the ban on the group and its activities would remain in place. It would also not be good for his Nasserist credentials to actively seek their support.

In matters of policy Sabbahi might also find an opening for gaining votes. Sisi’s platform revolves around security and stability. In his televised interview he outlined his vision for the economy, security, and other matters. What Sisi has not spoken of in any detail is poverty. As a socialist, this is Sabbahi’s natural playing field. By appealing to the millions of poverty-stricken Egyptians, Sabbahi could gain their favour.

Personal appeal is an area where Sisi remains far ahead of Sabbahi. Indeed, many former supporters of Sabbahi have turned on him and will support him no longer for various reasons. Yet even here, there is room for manoeuvre.

One of Sabbahi’s most well-known campaign slogans is “One of Us”. By presenting himself as a man of the people, and communicating with them directly and connecting with them, Sabbahi could well do better in this regard than many would expect. One huge advantage he has is that he can actually go to public rallies and speak to people. Sisi, who by his own count has survived two assassination attempts already, cannot risk going to speak at public rallies and must content himself with televised appearances.

Despite Sisi’s status as a hero of the nation, Sabbahi can utilise the fact that he can make his personal presence felt all over Egypt. He certainly tailors his rhetorical style to this end, which often appears to echo that of former President Gamal Abdul Nasser. While he cannot hope to match Nasser’s eloquence or popularity, he is certainly trying to employ the same style.

One final tool at Sabbahi’s disposal is to attack or criticise his opponent. Sabbahi has indeed used this tactic, albeit less so recently. There is also the fact that Sisi will probably not appear in a public debate with Sabbahi, a debate many believe would cause Sisi to lose a lot of support. Sabbahi could utilise this fact and call Sisi out for refusing to debate him.

At the end of the day all of the above is theoretical until Sabbahi actually does it. Even if he manages to tap into youth voters, in addition to the support of the parties backing him, Sisi’s overwhelming popularity will probably still prove the larger force. Furthermore, Sabbahi cannot hope to attract all the “poor” voters. The recent social and economic instability has hit them the hardest and vast numbers of them will be attracted by Sisi’s promise of stability.

Sabbahi is making sure that he appears connected to the people with numerous public appearances and rallies. His speeches are friendly and less formal than Sisi’s public statements. However, Sisi’s statesman-like demeanour projects an air of authority that Sabbahi cannot hope to match. This makes Sisi appear to be “presidential material”.

Many of the aforementioned strategies are already in use by Sabbahi. Whether this will give him a chance of winning a sizeable portion of the votes remains in question. Sisi’s widespread popularity will almost certainly ensure his electoral victory. But if Sabbahi has the nous to use the right strategy, and target the right voter groups, he can ensure that even in defeat he remains the only viable opposition to Sisi’s presidency.

This article was originally published in the Middle East Media Center for Studies website http://www.memcs.comon May 10th, 2013.  It is written by  Adam Woodard.

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