Egypt’s presidential election has turned into a contest between the ex-army chief lauded by millions for ousting an Islamist government and a leftist who claims to represent the ideals of the 2011 uprising.
Former army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sissi is the frontrunner in the May 26-27 vote, riding a wave of popularity after deposing Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first elected and civilian president.
Sissi’s sole rival is Hamdeen Sabbahi, who came third in the 2012 election which Morsi won, and is seen by supporters as the only leader representing the aspirations of those who revolted against the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood will not feature in the election. Not only is it boycotting the vote, but it has also been blacklisted as a “terrorist” organization amid a brutal crackdown by the military-installed authorities, despite sweeping all elections since Mubarak’s fall.
The movement’s top leaders are behind bars, and its members are blocked from contesting any poll.
Next month’s vote comes against the backdrop of unprecedented violence set off by Morsi’s overthrow.
Amnesty International says more than 1,400 people have died in the police crackdown targeting Morsi’s supporters, while over 15,000 have been jailed.
The authorities say more than 500 people, mostly policemen and soldiers, have been killed in militant attacks since the overthrow of Morsi.
It is precisely this insecurity from which Sissi derives his unparalleled popularity, as supporters see in him a leader capable of bringing stability to the country.
Since a military coup in 1952, every president in Egypt has come from the military, except Morsi.
“Today, Egypt is at a crossroads — it’s either ‘bread, freedom and social justice’ which was the slogan of the 2011 revolt, or stability,” said political analyst Gamal Abdel Awad.
With the economy in ruins, many are looking to Sissi to return the stability needed to reassure investors and tourists.
But Sabbahi hopes to capitalize on fears that Sissi represents a return to the authoritarian era of Mubarak, as the ongoing crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood has also targeted some leading activists of the 2011 revolt.
“We are facing a clear situation: there is a candidate who could take us to the future and there is another who could take us to the past,” said Amr Badr, Sabbahi’s spokesman.
Sabbahi officially submitted his candidacy on Saturday as a group of young people, who form the backbone of his support base, chanted “Justice comes before force” and “No need to be a marshal to be strong.”
His supporters see in Sabbahi echoes of the social justice policies associated with Gamal Abdel Nasser, the charismatic and socialist-leaning military ruler who toppled the monarchy in 1952 and stood up to Western powers.
Sabbahi “represents the youths who still want to realise the ideals for which they demonstrated in 2011,” said Abdel Gawad.
Sabbahi, who has won the backing of Al-Dostour, a liberal party founded by Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, gathered around 30,000 signatures backing his candidacy, an electoral commission official said.
That compares with almost 200,000 backing Sissi’s campaign, the official added.
Despite the huge support, Sissi’s positions on economic and political issues remain unclear, and there is little idea of how he would approach the job of president, said Michele Dunne of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
She said the interim government has been operating in “crisis mode” since Morsi’s ouster.
“The big question is whether, once Sissi is president and the post-coup political road map is nearly completed, he will begin to take actions to cut through this knot of problems,” Dunne said.
“So far there is no sign of a political or security strategy on Sissi’s part to move beyond the crackdown in effect since July 2013.”