Supporters go all-in for Sabbahi, Egypt's long-shot presidential hopeful

Hamdeen Sabbahi is running against Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, hailed as Egypt's savior since leading a military takeover last summer. Sabbahi's supporters say his ideals won them over.

Amr Nabil/AP
Presidential hopeful Hamdeen Sabbahi waves to his supporters during a rally in Baltim city, 132 miles North of Cairo, Friday, May 16, 2014. Sabbahi is the only challenger to former military chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt's upcoming presidential election.

Inside Hamdeen Sabbahi’s campaign headquarters, no one stands still. If the young volunteers are not welcoming journalists or laying out chairs for a campaign event, they are chattering away on smartphones. One woman paces in front of a wall plastered with photographs of the candidate, reeling off a list of his campaign stops to someone in a back office. Their campaign bus has just returned from a whistlestop tour of Upper Egypt.

It’s a remarkable effort for a candidate who is polling at only 2 percent.

Mr. Sabbahi, a self-styled socialist with bouffant white hair, is the only challenger to former military chief, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt's upcoming presidential election. Mr. Sisi has been hailed by many Egyptians as a national savior after leading a popular military coup last July that ousted an elected Islamist president. Sabbahi doesn't seem to stand a chance.

But inside his headquarters, no one admits to this – although, if pressed, several campaign workers talk of a future role in opposition politics.

The fresh-faced volunteers say they are here because of Sabbahi's lofty ideals of social and economic justice, reminiscent of the 2011 uprising that many of them joined. By now, the idealism of that time is a distant memory. The military coup against president Mohamed Morsi has been followed by an aggressive crackdown on dissent which has landed more than 16,000 people in jail. 

Their optimism stands in contrast to the more dour tone of Sisi's high-profile election campaign. He has called for hard work from Egyptians, and hinted at painful austerity measures to come. Sabbahi's program promises economic improvement, without specifying how he's going to achieve it, and an opening up of the political space. Many doubt it can be funded, given the perilous state of Egypt’s economy.

“After the revolution, I needed a candidate who shared my ideals – Sabbahi was the only one," says Mostafa el Hagary, a strategist, as he traces his finger across a monogrammed tablecloth bearing the candidate’s campaign slogan: “One of us.” 

Least-bad option

Sabbahi was the wildcard candidate in Egypt’s 2012 presidential elections. Lacking strong ties to either the old regime or the Brotherhood, he came in third with 21 percent of the first-round votes, before a final run-off between the two frontunners. His supporters fell into two broad camps – one revolutionary, the other disillusioned. The latter saw Sabbahi, a longtime political activist, as the least-bad alternative to Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood and Mubarak-era figures.

Two years later, Sabbahi may be better established, but he still draws on a fractured support base with conflicting agendas and aspirations. Many say they will be voting for him because he is the only man willing to challenge Sisi. That kind of constituency is difficult to energize.

“I'm voting for Sabbahi out of necessity, not out of love,” says Mohamed Saleh, a Cairo-based graphic designer. “Usually, I would choose a liberal, right-wing candidate who understands economics and favors capitalist policies. But nobody has offered this, so Sabbahi is the next best thing.”

When it comes to economic programs, Mr. Saleh does not believe he has the luxury of choice. Like many voters, his preference for socialist Sabbahi is based on the fact that he's a civilian, as was Morsi, the only non-military leader of modern Egypt. The Army has framed its decision to push him from power as a necessary choice to put the country back on a "revolutionary path" after a year of Islamist rule.

“Right now, we're only faced with two options: vote for Sisi and Army control, or to go in the opposite direction, whatever that entails,” Saleh sighs.

Others say they will vote Sabbahi merely to send a message to Sisi that he does not have carte blanche.

“I’m voting for Hamdeen [Sabbahi] because I don't want Sisi to win with a landslide,” says one investment banker, who asked not to be named. “That might imply to him that he can get back to old ways when it comes to rights and freedom.”

Sabbahi’s campaign has itself been affected by the crackdown. Already, there have been reports of volunteers being arrested or assaulted on the campaign trail. But campaigners are reluctant to discuss these experiences, apparently for fear of provoking the Sisi campaign, which is backed by the all-powerful police and military.

Playing the long game

A recent poll put Sabbahi’s support at only 2 percent, compared with 72 percent for Sisi. The frontrunner's credentials as the man who rescued Egypt from Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood have been bolstered by an inescapable PR campaign.

Ahead of the May 26-27 vote, Sisi's face fills newspaper and magazine pages and TV broadcasts and is emblazoned on posters and drapes hung over shops and streets across the country.

But back inside Sabbahi’s west Cairo campaign headquarters, the team are doing their best to put a positive spin on the difficulties ahead. They have promised to boost Egypt’s flailing economy, deal with its burgeoning energy crisis head on, free political prisoners, and repeal a law that effectively criminalizes spontaneous protest. 

But that all depends on whether they can put up a decent fight at the polls – and be heard in the aftermath. Campaigners say they are in this for the long run.

“We know that in most wars, the stronger side have often put out messages to say it's going to be a landslide win,” says one man. “We know they’re aiming to kill our morale, but we don’t let that happen.”

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