As informal and unofficial results pile up in Egypt’s first free presidential election, a heap of intriguing story lines are emerging.
What happened to former Arab League chief Amr Moussa, the presumed front runner? Did the Salafi community, with its voting power, abandon Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the man they endorsed? How is Ahmed Shafiq, the candidate most closely aligned with toppled president Hosni Mubarak, poised to enter the runoff?
But among the swirl of questions, one candidate has upended predictions the most: Hamdeen Sabahi.
Sabahi, a two-time member of parliament during the Mubarak era who was jailed 17 times under successive presidents, is battling with Shafiq for second place, after initial results showed him lagging far behind.
The charismatic populist from a rural town in Kafr el-Sheikh, a Nile Delta governorate, Sabahi had been dismissed by many analysts. He was the classic no-chance candidate in Egyptian politics, it seemed: a non-Islamist with no party machine who had revolutionary credentials and appealed to secularists.
“Sabahi has no organisation outside the big cities,” one well-known analyst told me.
“[The] only thing I’m sure of is that Sabahi is not in [the] second round,” tweeted H.A. Hellyer, a Middle East scholar.
And yet Sabahi’s surge over the past week has been palpable on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, where Al Jazeera reporters heard his name mentioned more than any other, if not as a first choice, then as the one man everyone seemed to like - someone tainted neither by the regime nor the strict, conservative and opaque party politics of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Magdy Girgis, a 50-year-old Christian shop owner in Cairo’s Shubra neighbourhood, told Al Jazeera that like many of his coreligionists he would vote for Shafiq, mostly because he felt the former Air Force officer could bring back a sense of security.
Yet Girgis said he also liked Sabahi, he just didn’t know if Sabahi was as strong.
In the wake of a parliamentary election that was dominated by Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood and prompted many to conclude that Egypt had revealed its deeply conservative and pious fundamental character, Sabahi’s surge may be an indicator that the appeal of a Nasserist - both in personality and policy - has yet to fade.
According to media reports, he has placed first or second in important governorates, including first in Alexandria, home to Egypt’s second city, and second in Suez and a batch of Delta governorates where the Brotherhood and Moussa were thought to be strong, such as Damietta, Gharbiya and Dakhileya.
Sabahi’s political career began in the 1970s, when he studied mass communication at Cairo University and joined the student union. He engaged in a famous, on-camera showdown with President Anwar Sadat at the university in 1977, criticising Sadat’s liberal economic reforms.
In the 1990s, Sabahi was an agitator and political organiser. He first ran for parliament in 1995 but lost in what his supporters described as a regime crackdown typical of the times.
When the government felt that Sabahi’s appeal was growing too strong, they shut down polling stations and deployed paid thugs to instigate fights. At one station, doors were shut with voters already inside, and a barrage of police tear gas left two women dead, one Sabahi volunteer told Al Jazeera recently.
His most prominent clash with the regime came in 1997, when Mubarak’s National Democratic Party passed a law making it easier for landlords to evict farmers who had come to the end of their leases.
Advocating civil disobedience
Sabahi took a prominent stand against the law, advocated mass civil disobedience, and was arrested.
But by then, he had become a well-known figure, and in 2000 and 2005 he was elected to parliament. He founded a journalism centre, The Rising, and advocated to change Egypt’s election laws to make it easier for independents such as himself to run for president.
He also affiliated himself with Kifaya and other Egyptian protest movements that had been newly invigorated after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq prompted demonstrations - also directed at the Mubarak regime - that were larger than any Cairo had seen in years.
When the revolution hit in January 2011, Sabahi was in the streets, and after Mubarak fell, he announced he would try for the presidency.
Sabahi’s campaign has reflected his likable persona. He is the only major candidate whose posters show him smiling, and his slogan, “one of us,” reflects a more populist appeal than the vagueness of the Brotherhood’s “renaissance is the will of the people” or the sternness of Moussa’s “Egypt needs the work of every Egyptian” or Shafiq’s “deeds, not words”.
He has received broad support from Egypt’s journalism and media communities - his headquarters is housed in the office of popular director Khaled Youssef - and his campaign claims that it has run haphazardly on a shoestring, with donors buying billboard and newspaper ad space where they can.
When Sabahi arrived in Cairo’s Matareyya neighbourhood for his final campaign rally on Sunday, just a few hundred people attended.
The rows of chairs boxed in by tent cloth with Ramadan-coloured patterns and bright hanging lights resembled a small village party more than a presidential campaign.
And yet word had spread about Sabahi. Around the corner from the rally, pensioner Muhammed Abdel Rahman sat on a sidewalk chair and said he and his neighbours had all settled on Sabahi.
Whether Sabahi’s media connections provided a late boost is up for debate, and any benefit would have been equally matched by what appeared to be a performance by state-owned media that was at best sympathetically and at worst intentionally promoting Shafiq and Moussa.
Yet by the first day of voting on May 23, Sabahi had ascended into the national debate. From taxi drivers to pensioners to well-educated consultants, his emphasis on justice and the poor had resounded.
“He said the right words, the honest words, at a time when everything was corrupt,” said Doaa Mohammed, a 28-year-old lawyer in a hijab.?
She said she was against Moussa and Shafiq for their regime connections and against Morsi and Aboul Fotouh, an ex-Brotherhood member, for their Islamism. Sabahi is open-minded, she said.
Sherif Fadel, a television news reporter volunteering for the campaign, echoed her.
“I know with Hamdeen if he wins, the next day I can go out into the street and say I disagree with him, and it will be OK.”