Egyptian democracy and the Sabbahi effect

Egypt’s newest candidate for president could be the perfect test case for Egyptian democracy and a lightening rod for opposition to the military.

Following the unfolding Egyptian revolution is not often rewarded with good news. Today was a little different: Hamdeen Sabbahi, one of the surprise stories from Egypt’s first post-revolution presidential election, has announced his candidacy for the office, once again. Sabbahi, who came in third place after Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate who was ousted from power last July, and Ahmed Shafiq, the former commander of the Air Force who was considered by many as faloul, or a remnant of the Mubarak regime, is a staunch leftist nationalist who gained immense popularity from revolutionary forces as well as a broad segment of the Egyptian population skeptical of the other leading candidates.

Sabbahi’s campaign will be a bellwether for the state of Egyptian democracy after the coup d’etat that unseated Mohamed Morsi and the subsequent attack on the Muslim Brotherhood by the Egyptian military. What has taken place in Egypt over the last several months has marked the reversal of Egypt’s once promising revolution and the slow return of the security state backed by the Egyptian military, whose current head, Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, is widely considered to be gearing up to run for the presidency, himself.

It is not altogether clear whether what is happening is the silencing of the Muslim Brotherhood or opposition in general. The interim regime that is currently governing the country recently put a revised constitution up to public referendum in what was considered an attempt to shore up its legitimacy and public support in the aftermath of the coup. In the run-up to the referendum’s vote, Egypt’s public was inundated with a heavy dose of pro-referendum advertisement, while any opposition was met with harassment and violence.

The new constitution also outlaws political parties based on religion (i.e. Muslim Brotherhood) from taking part in political system. More devastating has been the government initiative to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood from the public space, declaring it a terrorist organization, arresting its leadership, and making membership a criminal offense. While the Brotherhood is far from guiltless in its fate, the entire affair has been a massive blow to a pluralistic future for Egypt.

What Sabbahi’s candidacy now indicates is whether any form of free opposition will be tolerated or whether Egypt has finally returned full circle to the Mubarak-style “democracy” that existed before the revolution. While al-Sisi has not officially declared his candidacy for the presidency, the move is seen as an inevitability. I also expect that a very active component of Egypt’s youth population will put their efforts behind Sabbahi to prevent the steady shift in support for the military. Many in Egypt were divided over the thirteen candidates that ran for office the first time around. Now, knowing that Sabbahi is a viable choice with a chance of uniting different contingencies, it will be very interesting to see how the Egyptian military responds. Everyone should be paying attention.