Egypt's Also-Ran

Meet the man crazy enough to run for president against the new strongman in Cairo.

When millions of Egyptians cast their ballots for president next week, they will be participating in a virtual coronation. The outcome is a foregone conclusion: Former Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will win, probably by an astronomically high margin. Yet the fact that the affair will be considered an election at all is largely thanks to one man -- former parliamentarian and longtime Nasserist gadfly Hamdeen Sabahi, who will soon have the distinction of being the only man in Egypt's 7,000-year history to lose multiple presidential elections.

Sabahi, who finished a strong third in the 13-candidate 2012 presidential election, knows that the odds are severely stacked against him. "I think the political atmosphere says that there is a state candidate," he said, referring to Sisi, during an interview at his Giza-based office in early April. "I think this atmosphere does not give an equal competitive opportunity in this election."

Sabahi also hinted at the various constraints that have been placed on his campaign, including the arrest and assault of his supporters. And given his prominent role in campaigning for former President Mohamed Morsi's ouster last summer, Sabahi faces constant threats from the Muslim Brotherhood, and his movements are thus more restricted than during his previous presidential and parliamentary campaigns.

Yet despite the hopelessness of his relatively small campaign, Sabahi is making one important contribution to Egypt's political landscape. In an otherwise repressive political environment, he is working to preserve Egyptians' ability to challenge Sisi's emerging regime. "I am not an idealist who stays at home waiting for this state to be neutral," he told me. "For this reason, I believe in running for this presidential election so that democracy becomes a right."

In many respects, this is an unnatural role for Sabahi, who has embraced totalitarian ideas and rulers throughout his four decades as a prominent leftist activist. His political hero is Gamal Abdel Nasser, the former Egyptian president who outlawed opposition parties and instituted one-party rule. But Sabahi hasn't limited his enthusiasm to Egyptian autocrats: He has been accused of receiving funds for his Nasserist movement from former Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, and his name appeared following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq among those who had allegedly received funds from former dictator Saddam Hussein.

Sabahi considered Saddam an "Arab national hero," publicly praising the Iraqi tyrant during a 1994 appearance at one of Saddam's palaces. "Egypt loves you, Egypt stands by you, Egypt's heart is with you," a glowing Sabahi tells Saddam in a widely circulated YouTube video. "One of the mothers in the streets of my small hometown, Baltim, when she knew I was going to Iraq, she told me, 'My son, I entrust you to kiss Saddam Hussein.'"

In recent years, Sabahi has downplayed these associations by saying that he appreciated these leaders only for their anti-Western bent, not for their authoritarianism. When I asked Sabahi during a March 2013 interview how he could support a murderous figure like Saddam, Sabahi acknowledged that Saddam was "a dictator," but told me that he supported the Iraqi despot during the 1991 Gulf War because "for sure I will be with the Arab dictator against the dictator George Bush."

It was an odd comment, and I quickly pointed out that George H.W. Bush wasn't a dictator. "George Bush was elected in the United States," replied Sabahi. "But he was not elected to bomb the children in Iraq and kill them." This exchange was classic Sabahi: strident Arab nationalism with a dollop of clownishness.

Yet Sabahi's current campaign has been far from clownish. The candidate is taking this election extremely seriously and recalibrating his talking points to broaden his appeal beyond his Nasserist base, which largely prefers a strongman like Sisi anyway. So rather than highlighting Nasser's pan-Arabism, Sabahi now speaks of Nasserism as if it's a synonym for social democracy. "I am keeping the same values of Nasser like social justice," he told me in April, promising to reform Egypt's economy by means-testing energy subsidies and reducing the subsidies given to factories.

Sabahi is also targeting his message to Egypt's economic underclass, identifying poverty as the biggest "strategic threat" facing Egypt. Nearly half of Egypt's 86 million citizens live on less than $2 per day, and plummeting foreign investment and tourism since the 2011 uprising has meant low growth rates and fewer jobs. "This is the soil where extremists come from, and those who are frustrated and despaired are ready to become suicide bombers," Sabahi told me.

He thus preaches the importance of economic development to repair Egypt's fraying social fabric. His approach to fighting terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula emphasizes a "comprehensive development plan" to attract foreign investment and a political program for combating anti-Bedouin discrimination in order to promote greater trust between Bedouin tribes and the state, in addition to the current "security confrontation" with jihadists.

On foreign policy, Sabahi is similarly abandoning Nasserist orthodoxies and embracing mainstream views within Egyptian politics. In this vein, he says he accepts Israel's existence and the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty as political realities, but won't meet with Israeli leaders. He also includes the United States and the European Union on the list of powers with which he anticipates having "balanced relations." And he favors a stronger role for Egypt in Africa, promising that, if elected, his first trip abroad will include stops in Sudan and Ethiopia, where he will try to resolve the Nile water crisis.

But despite Sabahi's sudden seriousness, the candidate faces an insurmountable shortcoming in the current political climate: Unlike Sisi, he isn't a "man of the state" -- and can therefore expect to find the country's institutions arrayed against him. In fact, a President Sabahi would be vulnerable to the same kind of insurrection from within Egypt's vast security apparatus that toppled Morsi last July.

In addressing these concerns, Sabahi slyly attacks Sisi. "Egyptians really need a man of the state, but not a state of one man," he told me in April, effectively accusing Sisi of dictatorial ambitions.

Sabahi's criticism of Sisi has been more explicit in recent weeks. He blamed the former defense minister of violating human rights, accused him of being supported by figures from Hosni Mubarak's regime, and publicly cast doubt on his commitment to democracy. When I asked Sabahi whether he viewed Sisi as an emerging dictator, he said it was a possibility. "It depends on many factors. We are part of it. We are not going to allow him to be a dictator, and not anybody else."

Indeed, this is what Sabahi's candidacy is ultimately about -- building an alternative to Sisi and the strongman politics that he represents. But despite the earnestness with which Sabahi is pursuing this goal, there are two reasons his efforts will likely fall short.

First, while Sabahi is an alternative to Sisi, he can't be the alternative. The primary division within Egyptian politics remains that between Islamists and non-Islamists, and Sabahi's self-described "democratic Nasserism" maintains a very narrow following within the latter of those two camps. In this respect, Sabahi's candidacy is quite similar to liberal candidate Ayman Nour's 2005 campaign against Mubarak: Nour was simply another non-Islamist candidate, not a serious alternative to Mubarak's entrenched regime, and he ultimately garnered only 7.3 percent to Mubarak's 88.6 percent -- before the regime jailed him.

Second, the emerging regime won't allow Sabahi to establish himself as an alternative. The arrests of his campaign workers, as well as the violent assaults against his staff, represent warning shots should Sabahi press his case against Sisi too hard. And the regime knows that he might: Sabahi has four decades of experience in rallying protesters to the streets, and he personally mobilized his supporters during the 2011 and 2013 uprisings that catalyzed Mubarak's and Morsi's respective ousters. Given the current political climate -- in which not only Islamists but activists who campaigned for Morsi's toppling now sit in prison for resisting the current government's edicts -- Sabahi will likely be forced to choose between abiding by the regime's "red lines" as part of a "loyal opposition," or not politicking at all.

Still, there is always the remote possibility that Sabahi will surprise everyone -- say, by winning 25 percent of the vote. If that happens, it will indicate that significant opposition to Sisi exists even among those Egyptians who otherwise support the post-Morsi transition process. For this reason, Sabahi is an important test case for the extent to which competitive politics can and will exist under Sisi. More likely, however, he's a doomed canary in a toxic coal mine.

Photo by MAHMOUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images


Lend Rouhani a Hand

As the hard-liners wage a media war against the reform government of Hassan Rouhani and his nascent nuclear deal, the West has to step up and show it means business.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is under fire from his right flank. Less than a year after the reform-minded Rouhani was elected, hard-line critics say that engagement in negotiations with the P5+1 over Iran's nuclear program puts the country in grave danger. The negotiating team is reading the "last rites for the Islamic Republic," one hard-liner said after a May 3 conference of Rouhani critics called "We Are Concerned."

That may be an exaggeration. The Rouhani government, with tentative backing from the powerful clergy, is making earnest efforts to reach an agreement over the future of Iran's nuclear program. But under pressure from political adversaries at home and influential quarters in the Middle East, Rouhani will need the West to cooperate too.

Hard-liners have transformed the negotiations into an excuse to weaken and possibly paralyze the Rouhani administration. They reject the "dishonorable" interim Geneva accord that freezes Iran's nuclear program in return for temporary, partial sanctions relief. They claim that Iran has made every concession, but received nothing in return, and that the most crippling economic sanctions are still in place -- and may not be lifted for years, even if a final agreement is reached. They also claim that the Rouhani administration has colluded with the West and has retreated significantly from Iran's defensible position of maintaining a meaningful nuclear enrichment program, but has received no concessions in exchange for its sacrifices.

While Rouhani's critics oppose the sanctions, they also refuse to make concessions that might get them lifted for good. The sanctions are not a response to Iran's nuclear program, they say, but an instrument to topple the Islamic Republic. They fear that even if Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States -- plus Germany) reach a comprehensive agreement, the sanctions may not be lifted.

The hard-liners declare that Iran's nuclear infrastructure is a national achievement and thus should not be given up or scaled back, and that Iran can resist the sanctions by resorting to what Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei refers to as the "resistance economy" of self-sufficiency. Thus, the hard-liners reject any reduction in the number of centrifuges that Iran may have, oppose redesigning the new research reactor under construction in Arak to produce far less plutonium, and will not accept a complete halt to production of enriched uranium at 19.75 percent.

And the chorus of dissent within Iran is growing louder. In a May 21 newspaper editorial, Kayhan, the mouthpiece of the hard-liners, declared that "all the concessions made to Iran in the Geneva accord were only promises" and that in return for Iran's "27 obligations" made to the P5+1, the West had committed itself to stop its efforts to halt the flow of Iran's oil exports. But, claimed the editorial, under U.S. pressure, Iran's oil exports greatly decreased in March and April. Moreover, Iran was to receive payments of $4.2 billion, but has received only $2.65 billion because, due to the sanctions on Iranian banks and financial institutions, the rest of the funds cannot be transferred to Iran. Japan has transferred what it owed Iran to banks in Oman and the United Arab Emirates, but the funds cannot be transferred to Tehran.

Piling on, Saeed Zibakalam, an academic hard-liner, said in an interview reported by Mehr News that the letter that Rouhani wrote to Khamenei after the Geneva accord was signed was a "big lie." He also claimed that Javad Zarif lies when the foreign minister says that Iran's nuclear rights have been preserved. "I believe he means the building [of Iran's nuclear infrastructure] has been preserved [not the nuclear right]," he added.

Put simply, the hard-liners are worried that control is slipping away, and they appear intent on undermining the Rouhani government. Some conservatives, however, say that these proclamations about Rouhani single-handedly bringing down the Islamic Republic are unnecessarily alarmist. The Iranian Constitution stipulates that the supreme leader has a final say on matters of national security and won't allow a deal to move forward that undermines the regime.

"I declare with certainty that the Supreme National Security Council has set all the details of the negotiations, which cannot be deviated from," said Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the chairman of the parliament's national security and foreign-policy commission. "How is it possible that the supreme leader let the negotiations team to continue their work and 'read the last rites' [to the nuclear program]?"

Khamenei himself may not be in line with the most extreme of these anti-negotiation positions, but he does have concerns. He has said repeatedly that he is not optimistic about the talks with the P5+1, predicting that Washington will force them to fail by demanding too many concessions from Iran. "I have always supported creativity in foreign policy and diplomatic negotiations," but the United States and its allies are "trying to force Iran to retreat and bringing it to its knees," Khamenei said this month.

And the supreme leader, who has final say over the country's foreign policy, has his own red lines as well. Iran's conventional missile program is one of them. The legal precedent seems quite clear: U.N. Security Council Resolution 1696 calls on governments to "exercise vigilance and prevent the transfer of any items, materials, goods and technology that could contribute to Iran's enrichment-related and reprocessing activities and ballistic missile programmes." Resolution 1929 stipulates that Iran "shall not acquire an interest in … technology related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons."

Khamenei rejects both resolutions and views them as illegitimate. "They are expecting Iran to limit its missile program while also threatening Iran. Thus, their demand is stupid and idiotic," Khamenei said this month while visiting commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

As the ayatollah tries to pour cold water on the nuclear deal, the P5+1 has an even bigger role to play. If Rouhani doesn't receive tangible results from the negotiations, the Rouhani government may have to forgo any hope of genuine domestic reform -- potentially, a decade-long setback.

But the nuclear negotiations don't have to lead to failure despite contentious issues. All political factions in Iran have repeatedly stated that their country is not pursuing nuclear weapons. Khamenei has even issued a fatwa against the production of nuclear weapons. Iran has indicated its willingness to allow extensive inspections led by the International Atomic Energy Agency to prove its intentions. Even Mohsen Rezai, a retired commander of the IRGC and the secretary of the Expediency Council, has said that Iran is not interested in nuclear weapons and is willing to provide "any guarantee" and make the program "completely transparent."

But the onus is now on Rouhani, who must produce tangible results by winning greater reductions in economic sanctions. This will allow him to stand up to the hard-liners on domestic issues, in particular human rights. The president has firmly and publicly rejected blocking access to social media and text-messaging services, has declared his support for equality of gender rights, and has encouraged free speech.

Significant sanctions relief that will help in reviving Iran's economy will go a long way toward this goal. That has not happened yet. On the contrary, several months after signing the Geneva accord, the West -- and, in particular, the United States -- has still not delivered on its commitment to supply Iran's old civilian aircraft with the spare parts that will allow them to fly safely. And, as the Kayhan editorial notes, Iran still does not even have direct access to the oil revenue that is to be released in installments according to last November's Geneva agreement.

Rouhani wants to reach a comprehensive and final nuclear agreement. He believes that diplomatic relations with the United States -- suspended since 1980 -- can resume after an agreement is reached. But serious forces are aligned against him. Iranian, American, and Israeli hard-liners oppose and are doing their utmost to scuttle the negotiations. The consequences could be dire.

If the negotiations fail, the Middle East will witness more wars, and regional and international security will be unstable for years to come. A collapse of the nuclear negotiations will increase the likelihood of a war between Iran and Israel, a situation that would dramatically disrupt the flow of oil from the region -- and with it inflict serious pain on the global economy.

The West must aid the Rouhani administration in its efforts. If a final agreement is reached, it will have profound consequences for peace and stability in the Middle East and beyond. The future of any hope for stability and genuine reform in Iran, too, hangs in the balance.

Photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images