CAIRO – The congratulatory bouquet of flowers sitting in Khaled Ali’s austere downtown Cairo office has withered away, but the writing on the attached card is clear: “Tiran and Sanafir are Egyptian.”
It’s a reference to the court victory that brought to prominence the rights lawyer who was a leading player in Egypt’s 2011 uprising but was little noticed outside his leftist circles when he ran for president in 2012.
With a suit he and other lawyers led last year, Ali succeeded in blocking the government’s plan to hand over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.
The court ruling, upheld on appeal in January, was an unexpected setback to President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who had promised the oil-rich kingdom the islands of Tiran and Sanafir in an agreement last year. It gave Ali the shine of a defender of the country’s integrity among the many who opposed the handover.
Now Ali is considering running again in elections next year to challenge el-Sissi, the former general who came to office in 2014 in a landslide, riding on the support for his fierce crackdown on Islamists. Ali’s candidacy would be a long shot, but the 44-year-old sees it as a way to breathe some life into Egypt’s leftist, revolutionary and pro-democratic forces after years of defeat and disarray under a crackdown.
“Of course, I am a likely candidate, but I have yet to make a final decision,” he told The Associated Press in an interview.
He said consultations are underway among “democratic and social forces” — his term for those behind the 2011 uprising and its supporters — to formulate a joint position on the election and consider whether to field a candidate or boycott. He said that his chief concern is the “legal and constitutional” environment of the vote, which is due in the summer of 2018.
Ali has been a key figure among the small but vibrant core of mostly young pro-democracy and secular activists known loosely as the “revolutionaries.” They were the main force behind the 18-day uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
For a brief window after his fall, they were celebrated in Egypt. But they failed to present a cohesive political force. The military took over after Mubarak’s fall and pushed an election process that led to the Muslim Brotherhood winning the presidency and dominance in parliament. Ali came in seventh in the initial round of voting in the 2012 election.
Since leading the military in a 2013 ouster of the Brotherhood, el-Sissi has waged a heavy crackdown on dissent, not only among Islamists but also against the ranks of secular activists. El-Sissi has frequently argued that the country needs stability to repair its economy and fight an Islamic militant insurgency.
Many of the “revolutionaries” have been jailed, quit political activism or left the country. They have been relentlessly demonized in the largely pro-el-Sissi media, depicted as foreign agents who conspire against Egypt and pose a national security threat.
But Ali argued that the climate maybe conducive for change, pointing to new energy generated by the courtroom victory and discontent over reforms introduced by el-Sissi that aim to rescue the deeply damaged economy but have hit most Egyptians hard with spiraling prices.
“We have 18 months during which we must work together, reorganize our bases and prepare for a battle that I believe will be an important one, regardless of its final outcome,” Ali said at his office, with the wall behind him adorned by photographs of 15 revolutionaries who are either currently in prison or have served out their sentences.
The “democratic and social” movements must “work hard to overhaul their relations with the Egyptian street,” he said. “They must present themselves as a viable choice or option and next year’s election will be an important milestone in that direction.”
He proudly pointed out that it was those revolutionaries that won the Tiran and Sanafir case, which he called a “crossroads” in Egyptian politics.
“This case has placed before Egyptians a contradiction: that those who wanted to relinquish ownership of the islands are the regime and those who defended our ownership in court are the youths of that revolution,” he said.
Ordinary Egyptians helped Ali in gathering the nearly 200 pieces of evidence that he and his colleagues submitted in the case to show the islands were historically Egyptian, including atlases, books, military books, documents and journals of 19th century travelers.
He said one man called him, offering something he said could be useful — but he was scared to come to Ali’s office, fearing police retaliation. So he waited in a nearby square as Ali sent someone to him. “I phoned him to say what the messenger was wearing and he gave him the document, placed inside a folder for medical tests. It was an old map,” Ali said.
Still, the revolutionaries have a long way to go.
Egypt’s politics have been stagnant since el-Sissi’s rise to power: political parties are weak, parliament is overwhelmingly dominated by el-Sissi supporters, and there are almost no prominent opposition figures of any ideological stripe. The Brotherhood and other Islamists, once Egypt’s most powerful political force, have been decisively crushed and banned from politics — and the revolutionaries have little interest in working with their remnants.
El-Sissi has yet to formally announce it, but he is likely to seek a second, four-year term in office in 2018. Despite more visible shows of discontent, he has significant public support. He has carried out a number of infrastructure mega-projects and is seen by some as the country’s savior from Islamists and the sole force that can bring stability. In the election, el-Sissi will also likely have the backing of state institutions and the media.
Ali appears undeterred.
“The youth of this country are trying to present themselves as a substitute … a path of genuine democracy,” he said. “We seek a nation where dialogue is one of the tools of political rivalries, not prison, arms, violence and tyranny.”