In Search of Egypt’s Fifth President: Hamdeen Sabahi

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Posters of presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahy hang on a wall in Cairo 21 May 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Suhaib Salem)

By: Mohammad Khawly

Published Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Longtime Nasserist activist and former MP Hamdeen Sabahi’s stock was on the rise in the last month before the elections. But will it be enough to make this candidate of humble origins the next president of Egypt?

Cairo- Hamdeen Sabahi, 57, is different than the other four leading Egyptian presidential candidates: Amr Moussa, Mohammed Mursi, Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, and Ahmed Shafik. He stands apart from the others for his historic struggle, which is filled with milestones confirming that he is indeed the candidate of ordinary Egyptians.

Sabahi was arrested in 1997 for his participation in what was known as the "peasants' battle against the Landlords and Tenants Law," by which the ousted Hosni Mubarak regime sought to take land from the peasants and return it to old landowners.

It was not the first time that Sabahi was arrested. In fact, he was the youngest member of the Nationalist Opposition movement to be detained in the crackdown by the late president Anwar Sadat in 1981 – known as the "September arrests" of leaders and activists critical of Sadat's policy on normalization with the Israel.

Sabahi was arrested again in the late 1980s on charges of membership in the "Egypt Revolution," led by Mahmoud Noureddine, which assassinated Zionist and American elements in Egypt. Sabahi was charged at the time of being "one of the leaders of the political wing of the armed Egypt Revolution organization."

Sabahi was again arrested in 2003, becoming the first Egyptian MP to be detained, for leading demonstrations against the passage of US destroyers through the Suez Canal to wage war on Iraq.

Sabahi’s modest origins also distinguish him from the other leading candidates. He was born to simple parents from the small village of Baltim in the district of Kafr al-Sheikh north of Cairo.

His father was a peasant, who, like all Egyptian farmers, suffered great injustice before the July 1952 revolution. This inspired the young Sabahi, in his teen years, to seek the establishment of what became known as the Nasserist Student Federation.

Sabahi often says that if it were not for the late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, he would not have been a presidential candidate today. Due to the free education system set up by Abdel Nasser, he was able to graduate from the Faculty of Media at Cairo University, where he was president of the student federation. He was also president of Cairo University's student council in 1975-76 and vice president of the General Union of Egyptian Students from 1975 to 1977.

During those years, Sabahi and a large group of his university peers saw president Sadat "following in the footsteps of Abdel Nasser with an eraser," particularly by steering the economy into a liberal capitalist direction. Thus, they formed the Nasserist Thought Club at Cairo University, which later spread to other universities across Egypt and established the Federation of Nasserist Thought Clubs.

After the popular Egyptian uprising against Sadat's economic policies in 1977, Sabahi made his famous intervention during a meeting of a group of university students with Sadat. Still in his early 20s, Sabahi stood up in front of the country's president and criticized his economic policies and the proliferation of government corruption. He also condemned the Sadat regime's ties with the Israel in the aftermath of the October 1973 War.

The Nasserist student completed his education and quickly immersed himself in political activity, starting with taking part in establishing the Socialist Arab Party. He later co-founded the Nasserist Arab Party, but left over differences with his comrades, known as "Nasser's dervishes."

Sabahi decided to split from the party and founded the al-Karama (Dignity) Party, which the former regime's political party affairs commission refused to register. It formally saw the light after the 25 January 2011 revolution.

Sabahi has engaged in many battles. Perhaps the most important one was inside the parliament in 2008, when he became the first MP to demand an end to exporting gas to the occupying Israel.

In the same year, Sabahi was also the first Egyptian lawmaker to break the Israeli occupation's blockade on Gaza when he entered the besieged strip and met with Hamas leaders to relay the Egyptian people's support for the Palestinians.

He told them the Egyptian people will stand by them until the liberation of all Palestinian territories and stressed his support for Hamas and the other Palestinian resistance factions. Such positions were not new to the man who publicly supported the Lebanese resistance during the Israeli aggression on Lebanon in 2006.

At a time when Hosni Mubarak was saying, "I am your supreme lord," Sabahi was demanding the election of a president from multiple candidates and to limit the president's powers and term in office.

Sabahi demanded full independent supervision of the elections and stopping the security services from interfering in politics. Under the dome of parliament, he also called for expanding public freedoms and opposed the renewal of the State of Emergency Law.

Sabahi's performance in the 2001 parliamentary session was hardly welcomed by the regime. In the 2005 elections, the ousted regime's lackies worked hard to prevent him from reaching parliament again.

But Sabahi's supporters were steadfast in the face of the security forces, who used all means available to them to prevent his voters from reaching the ballot boxes. They even fired live bullets at the voters, killing Jumaa al-Zaftawi and injuring hundreds. Nevertheless, Sabahi won a second term in parliament.

The Mubarak regime made a final decision to oust Sabahi from the 2010 legislative elections. Ahmad Ezz, the notorious leader of the dissolved National Democratic Party, dedicated all his efforts to keep Sabahi out of parliament through outright fraud. Ezz personally went to Sabahi's district in Kafr al-Sheikh, which prompted Sabahi to withdraw from the race in protest against such intimidation and fraud.

Sabahi's critics accuse him of having been financed by former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in return for "polishing up the image of their regimes." Sabahi denied these accusations and was the only candidate to make a full and public financial disclosure of his assets.

He said that he has 7,000 Egyptian pounds (a little more than US$1,000) in his bank account, owns an apartment in Cairo's Mohandessin district, and another in his hometown of Baltim. He also revealed that he and his wife own a car each, a Skoda and a Hyundai respectively, insisting that he never took a penny from any Egyptian, Arab, or foreign regime.

Sabahi also participated in establishing the Egyptian Kifaya (Enough) movement, which raised the slogan of "No to inheritance, no to extension," in reference to Mubarak's intention to pass on power to his son, Gamal. Sabahi was a familiar face in most of the political demonstrations or those related to the social conditions of workers and peasants.

Sabahi was among the most important participants in the first day of the January 25 revolution. He led a march from his hometown and joined the massive demonstration in Tahrir Square in Cairo.

Abdel Nasser's descendant, as some call him, did not break his oath that came in a large front-page headline in the first issue of al-Karama newspaper in 2005, which read: "We swear to Almighty God that Gamal Mubarak will not inherit us."

Muhammad al-Arabi, a researcher in political and strategic affairs in the Future Studies Unit at the Alexandria Library, says that the "Hamdeen option" gained significant ground in the last month before the presidential race.

"It's interesting how the views of a considerable number of voters shifted toward a candidate this quickly," Arabi said. He noted that Sabahi has a "specific and clear political color, which has not changed since the beginning of his struggle in the 1970s," when he was a student leader.

Arabi added that Sabahi's slogan of being "one of us" may also attract those who fear the Islamists and reject their behavior in the aftermath of the January 25 revolution.

"Many of those leaning toward the Sabahi option do not trust Abul Fotouh's disengagement from the Muslim Brotherhood or were disappointed by his performance during the televised debate with Amr Moussa," Arabi said.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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