Egypt elections: Is Hamdeen Sabbahy a challenger for Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's presidency – or his stooge?

The oppositionist underdog in this month's poll hopes to defy the odds

Cairo

Hamdeen Sabbahy has the photographs of two men in a frame on his desk: his father, with the lined, sun-worn face of a peasant farmer, and Gamal Abdel Nasser, widely described as the first leader of an Arab nation to challenge Western dominance of the Middle East.

Their inspiration has carried him through five decades as an opposition activist, and has now pitched him headlong into a race for Egypt's presidency. When Egyptians go to the polls this month they are widely expected to return a landslide victory for Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former military chief with austere personal habits and an austere vision for Egypt – hard work, sacrifice, and certainly no more protesting.

His lone challenger is Mr Sabbahy, an avuncular and warm lifelong oppositionist with roots among the impoverished farmers of the Nile Delta who promises to fulfil the aspirations of the revolution that broke out three years ago: bread, freedom and social justice.

In a region dominated by kings, Islamists and military strongmen, Mr Sabbahy claims to offer something different. "If we manage to reach power we will create a model that is an example, not just for Egypt, but for the whole Arab region," he tells The Independent on Sunday.

The two candidates have very different visions. Mr Sisi backs a law introduced last year that makes protesting illegal without police permission; Mr Sabbahy promises to repeal it and release the "unjustly imprisoned", including leading lights of Egypt's revolutionary youth movement.

In the wake of televised interviews with the two candidates last week, Mr Sabbahy's social democratic vision of helping the poor seems to be gathering momentum. For the revolutionary youth, Mr Sabbahy is not an ideal candidate but, on social media and in downtown Cairo cafés, the mood seems to be turning from a boycott to grudging support.

On television and on the streets, he seems comfortable and at ease, compared to Mr Sisi, who appeared overbearing and awkward in the recent interviews. Mr Sabbahy says Egypt's problem is that, despite superficial changes, the same people have stayed in power and "Mubarak loyalists" have remained in Mr Sisi's campaign.

Growing up, Mr Sabbahy was acutely aware of the daily struggles of his poor village, on the shore of a lake, which he fished as a young man. When Mr Nasser brought British rule to an end in 1952, his rhetoric of justice and equality coursed through the Delta. Mr Sabbahy remembers how it inspired him. "I am a son of that time," he said. In primary school, he would give speeches and once led a student strike after the principal beat a pupil. At university, he publicly challenged President Anwar Sadat during a televised debate, a taboo at the time.

After graduation he founded a series of political parties. He says that his generation of activists developed a "street Nasserism" which recognised faults in Nasser's state, and incorporated support for democracy and human rights. Mr Nasser's successors did not share those views and, for his activism, Mr Sabbahy was arrested 17 times, imprisoned eight and tortured once.

One of the prisons in which he was detained, the Citadel in Cairo, was subsequently decommissioned and converted into a tourist attraction. Mr Sabbahy took his children to see the cell in which he was held in solitary confinement. Like many other political prisoners, the experience only hardened his convictions.

"If it hadn't been for prison, I would not have been able to read the terrible translation of Edward Said's Orientalism that I had with me," he says.

In 1995, he stood in parliamentary elections as a candidate for his home district. He finally got into parliament in 2000.

In Egypt's first post-revolution presidential election, Mr Sabbahy surprised observers by coming a strong third in the first round with 21 per cent of the vote.

From the point of view of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr Sabbahy is just another backer of the July coup which forced them from power. Although he opposed the military taking power, he backed demonstrations against the Brotherhood, and a protest four weeks later to "authorise" Mr Sisi to deal with "terrorism", which meant the Brotherhood.

Mr Sabbahy also maintains that the police clearance of two Brotherhood Cairo sit-ins in August was necessary, although they left around 800 people dead. He says the operation violated human rights standards. For young Brotherhood activists who have lost friends to police bullets, that isn't good enough.

Others question whether his populist and sometimes vague policies are feasible for an economy in crisis. He argues that only fighting corruption and elite interests can revitalise Egypt for both workers and the private sector.

It is the financial backing of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait that is keeping Egypt afloat. "In truth, they have paid money so that we continue the war against the Brotherhood," he acknowledges. But Mr Sabbahy does not believe their influence would curtail his leftist programme because he, too, would see that the Brotherhood did not return.

Hamdeen Sabbahy is chiefly remarkable because he has chosen to participate despite the overwhelming weight of the state institutions and private wealth behind Mr Sisi's bid for the presidency. Other prospective candidates all withdrew from the race in quick succession, some saying there was no prospect of a genuinely free and fair election.

Mr Sabbahy's critics say that his candidature legitimises an illegitimate process. But, in his bustling campaign offices full of young activists last week, there was a sense of hopefulness rare in Egypt today. "It's good to be working on something positive," one of them, Karima Aboul Nour, said.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Graduate Software Developer / Junior Developer

£20 - 28k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Graduate Software Develop...

Recruitment Genius: Delegate Telesales Executive - OTE £21,000 uncapped

£16000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: High quality, dedicated Delegat...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Consultant - School Playground Designer

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Traffic Planner

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As the successful candidate you...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor