Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1194, (24-30 April 2014)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1194, (24-30 April 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Hamdeen Sabahi: ‘One of Us’

Hamdeen Sabahi’s decision to run for president a second time, against all the odds, reflects the fighter inside him, writes Khaled Dawoud

Hamdeen Sabahi: ‘One of Us’
Hamdeen Sabahi: ‘One of Us’
Al-Ahram Weekly

Just as Hamdeen Sabahi, 60, was about to announce his decision to stand as a candidate in the presidential elections on 8 February, surrounded by his young supporters, he made the following announcement: “If anyone finds a white ipad that belongs to our colleague here, please bring it to the stage. There is a lost white ipad. Thank you.”

Sabahi’s appeal quickly turned into a joke on social media pages and television talk shows. People wondered how a prospective candidate for president could become involved in such a trivial issue. But for his campaign team the announcement was typical of the man they knew, totally at ease with the people he deals with. That’s why they picked “One of Us,” as the key slogan for his presidential campaign in 2012 and why, in 2014, they are using it again.

The slogan may remain the same but this time round Sabahi’s chances, say pundits, are slimmer than ever. In 2012 Sabahi, who has taken the Arab nationalism and socialism of President Gamal Abdel-Nasser as his model since becoming politically active as a young man in his hometown of Balteem, was one of 13 candidates from across the political spectrum. While known as a former member of parliament and a Nasserist political activist who had been in and out of prison, usually for short periods, over the past 40 years, few expected he would be among the top contenders.

His campaign attracted negligible media interest.

Yet Sabahi came in third in the first round with 4.8 million votes, just trailing Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi with 5.7 million votes and former prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, the last official Hosni Mubarak appointed, on 5.5 million votes. The two leading contenders according to most opinion polls — moderate Islamist and former Brotherhood leader Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, and former foreign minister and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa — came fourth and fifth with 4 million and 2.5 million votes respectively.

As soon as the results were announced Sabahi rushed to Tahrir Square, hand in hand with Abul-Fotouh and Khaled Ali, the young leftist lawyer who won 136,000 votes in the presidential contest, to declare they did not recognise the results. The three made what many critics saw as an absurd demand, that Shafik be barred from running in the second round because he represented the Mubarak regime against which Egyptians had revolted 16 months earlier. Later there were reports of attempts to convince the Brotherhood and Morsi to pull out of the race and allow Sabahi to run against Shafik. Many of the young people who took part in the 25 January Revolution, it was argued, would find it impossible to choose between a member of the Mubarak regime and the leader of a political Islamist group that was not only viewed with suspicion but had no experience of government. Any such proposal was ignored and Morsi was eventually declared president after a wafer thin run-off victory.

Sabahi remained politically active. When opposition to Muslim Brotherhood rule grew he was among the first to join the National Salvation Front (NSF), formed following Morsi’s constitutional declaration of 28 November 2012 which placed his decrees beyond judicial appeal.

Sabahi may have agreed to form an alliance with the Brotherhood and other political forces in the first parliamentary elections after the 25 Revolution — it brought his small Karama (Dignity) Party a few seats — but there was no love lost between the Brotherhood and Nasserists. The Brotherhood consider Nasser their historic foe, the man who banned the group in 1954, rounded up their leaders and sentenced some, including Sayed Qutb, to death. Nasser’s secular, socialist policies were anathema to the Brotherhood’s vision of a conservative, market-oriented Islamic state.
After Morsi won the presidency Sabahi rushed to Tahrir Square where he expressed confidence in the Brotherhood’s ability to overcome all difficulties and Morsi saying “exactly like we overcame the 1960s, and we all know how the 1960s were”.

This direct reference to the Nasserist era, in which thousands of Brotherhood members were jailed, was not missed by Sabahi’s supporters. They noted with anger Morsi’s failure, three weeks after he took office, to mark the 60th anniversary of the 23 July, 1952 Revolution in which Nasser toppled the monarchy.

In the six months that followed the approval of the Brotherhood-drafted constitution in December 2012 Sabahi was one of Morsi’s most vociferous critics. He was among the first to call for early presidential elections. Other NSF members, including Dostour Party founder, Mohamed Al-Baradei and Moussa, the former Arab League chief, seemed willing to give Egypt’s first democratically elected president more time. The Brotherhood leadership accused Sabahi’s newly-founded alliance, The Popular Trend, of backing a small, previously unknown group, the Black Block, that had claimed responsibility for violent clashes with the police. Sabahi denied any links.

Open confrontation with the Brotherhood led to charges that Sabahi cared only about becoming president, especially after Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi stated he harboured no political ambitions while opting to support popular demonstrations against Morsi on 30 June, leading to his removal four days later. That Sabahi had come third in the first round of elections in 2012, his long history as a political activist and close ties to the young people who took part in the 25 January Revolution made Sabahi a prospective candidate in any presidential election after Morsi’s removal.

Al-Sisi’s decision to run for president turned Sabahi’s calculations upside down. He had already announced that he was willing to back the former army chief should Al-Sisi agree to fulfill the goals of the 25 January Revolution. The fact that Nasser was an army officer when he led 1952 Revolution made many Nasserists, including some of Sabahi’s closest backers, hesitant in opposing Al-Sisi. The heavily orchestrated campaign in both state-owned and private media promoting Al-Sisi as the only candidate capable of tackling Egypt’s security and economic crises further complicated Sabahi’s decision to run.

Sources close to Sabahi’s campaign said he was placed under heavy pressure from young members in the Popular Trend to stand. “They appealed to the fighter in him,” says Hossam Mounes, head of Sabahi’s campaign team. “Many of his own generation were worried about the consequences of him running and failing against Al-Sisi.” Among the figures who backed Sabahi in 2012 who have now defected to Al-Sisi are Abdel-Hakim Abdel-Nasser, the son of late President Nasser, and film director Khaled Youssef.

Critics of Sabahi point out that while he is known as a stalwart fighter for the rights of the disadvantaged, both a student leader in the late 1970s and as an MP between 2000 and 2010, he has never had a career in his own field of journalism and has occupied no administrative posts that might prepare him for the job of president.

Sabahi’s Arab nationalism also led to close connections with Arab dictators such as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. He visited Iraq and Libya many times, mostly to attend conferences or to appeal for the release of Egyptians held there. Following the US invasion of Iraq in April 2003 Sabahi’s name appeared among those who had allegedly received funding from the Iraqi leader.

Sabahi denied the allegations, and pointing out that his lifestyle had hardly changed in a way that might suggest he was receiving funds from Iraq or Libya. A father of two, Sabahi has occupied the same modestly furnished apartment since the early 1980s.

One of the key moments in Sabahi’s early political life was his by now legendary confrontation with late President Anwar Al-Sadat in 1978. Sabahi stood up during Sadat’s meeting with youth leaders to declare his opposition to the visit Sadat had just made to Israel and his plans to sign a peace treaty. Sadat was not a man who accepted criticism readily. Sabahi knew standing up to him in public was likely to end in prison. Shortly before Sadat’s assassination in 1981 police rounded up more than 3000 of the president’s opponents, Sabahi among them.

Sabahi joined several attempts to form an independent Nasserist party under Mubarak but divisions between Nasserists made it impossible themselves to form a strong Arab nationalist party. When Sabahi ran for parliament under Mubarak he did so as an independent candidate, depending on the support of the people in his own hometown of Baltim and nearby cities in Kafr Al-Sheikh Governorate. While he failed to win a seat in 1995 — there were bloody clashes between his supporters and those of the National Democratic Party (NDP) during the campaign — he succeeded, albeit with difficulty, in 2000 and 2010.

Responding to criticism that he has never held a full-time job Sabahi says he was always busy fighting on behalf of the people in parliament. He was known for tough questioning, not only of ministers but those known to have enjoyed close ties with Mubarak.

Sabahi exposed government corruption while in parliament, particularly the sale of public sector companies, and opposed a host of legislation he deemed harmful to the interests of the poor. At any protest against Israel’s occupation of Palestine, or against US intervention in the Arab world, Sabahi was always in the front lines. That he enjoyed parliamentary immunity in 2003 did not spare him from spending a few days in prisons after protesting against the Iraq war.

Sabahi’s own party, Al-Karama, licensed after Mubarak’s ouster in 2011, proved unable to attract a broad-based membership. When Sabahi decided to run for president in 2012 he sought to forge a wider alliance under the umbrella of Al-Tayar Al-Shaabi (Popular Trend). The Trend, however, attracted mainly Nasserist supporters. Left-leaning parties created after 25 January Revolution — Al-Dostour, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party and the Popular Socialist Alliance — preferred to work on their own.

As Sabahi faced sharp criticism for daring to declare he would compete against Al-Sisi, only one political party, Al-Dostour, came out in his support. Other parties felt the balance was clearly in Al-Sisi’s favour and did not want to risk their future. “We know we’re in a tough battle,” says former ambassador Maasoum Marzouk, and one of Sabahi’s main backers. “But Sabahi couldn’t let down the thousands of young men who came to him, saying ‘You are one of us’, you were in Tahrir Square with us on 25 January and our voice must be heard through you. That was one of the main reasons Sabahi decided to stand again.

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