Profile: The many faces of Hamdeen Sabahi

In the run-up to Egypt’s May 26 presidential election, Al Jazeera takes a closer look at the candidates.

Hamdeen Sabahi has at various times worked as a journalist, an activist, a publisher and an MP [EPA]

Egyptian presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi is a controversial self-styled socialist politician with a long history of political activism. He is running against leading presidential contender Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Sabahi has been a long-time advocate of economic justice, Arab unity and independent foreign policy.

Born in 1954, Sabahi began a career in political activism in 1970. He was elected as head of the Cairo University student union in 1973. Four years later, and following the January 1977 uprising against former President Anwar Sadat over a hike in food prices, Sabahi publicly confronted the president in a televised meeting. He was consequently prohibited from working as a journalist in the state media sector for several years.

Throughout his career, Sabahi wore many hats: a journalist, an activist, a publisher, a two-time member of parliament under Hosni Mubarak and a populist opposition figure.

He participated in the 2011 uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak, and having built up substantial grassroots support in the following months, Sabahi registered to run in the country’s first post-uprising presidential election. Mohamed Morsi ultimately won the 2012 vote, while Sabahi came in third with about 4.8 million votes.

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During the parliamentary elections that preceded Morsi’s election, Sabahi struck an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). Sabahi’s Karama (Dignity) Party, along with the FJP and other parties, formed an alliance that won the main bloc in the post-revolution parliament.

Sabahi’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood was later strained. He told the press that he turned down an offer to be Morsi’s vice president, and cast doubts on whether parliamentary elections could be held fairly under Morsi. Sabahi also repeatedly warned of the movement’s efforts to take over the state before the July 3, 2013 military coup that ousted Morsi.

Sabahi and his aides later criticised violations committed by the new regime during the 2014 constitutional referendum. Sabahi also told a local television channel that the 2012 presidential elections “were conducted in a more equal and open political atmosphere than upcoming elections”. Still, Sabahi has vowed to remain in the presidential race.

Some pro-revolution voices had urged Sabahi not to run, saying the upcoming election is a sham and that by running, Sabahi would legitimise unfair elections in the eyes of the international community.

Since July 3, Sabahi has openly supported the country’s new military-backed rulers. He backed a transitional political roadmap, a constitutional referendum and a ban on all Muslim Brotherhood activities. He even advocated a ban on the FJP to prevent the country’s biggest and most organised Islamist movement from returning to power.

The socialist politician presents himself as the man most capable of protecting the new regime in Egypt. He has called Sisi a “hero” of the 2013 uprising, but repeatedly urged him not to run for president, saying it would be a sign of military intervention in politics and give more legitimacy to voices calling Morsi’s removal from office by the army a military coup.

Sabahi also believes he is the man most capable of preventing the Muslim Brotherhood from coming back to power in the long run, because of his political background as a Mubarak opponent and his socialist tendencies, which emphasise democracy and economic justice.

Sabahi accuses the Muslim Brotherhood of being “politically responsible” for “terrorism” in Egypt and portrays the group’s ongoing protests as being “full of violence and provocative”. On August 14, 2013, the day security forces used force to disperse pro-Morsi sit-in camps in Cairo and Giza, Sabahi expressed on Twitter his support for police and the military.

Still, Sabahi has been critical of interim regime policies towards the Muslim Brotherhood, vowing that if elected president he would end the media campaign against the group’s members, curb the police campaign against them and help integrate them as individuals into Egypt’s society and political system. 

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For decades, Sabahi has participated in establishing solidarity campaigns and committees with both Lebanese and Palestinian groups opposed to the normalisation of relations with Israel. He also supports economic policies that address social justice, such as implementing an across-the-board $170 monthly minimum wage for government employees, protecting government subsidies that benefit the poor and raising taxes paid by the rich. Sabahi also wants to protect government-owned companies and adopt a policy of industrialisation.

As a self-proclaimed Nasserite and a follower of pan-Arab ideals promoted by former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sabahi says he is a strong believer in Arab unity and in strengthening Arab relations. He has praised the UAE and Saudi Arabia for supporting Egypt after Morsi’s ouster. He told a local television channel that had the Morsi regime remained in power, “it could have exported war on the Gulf regimes to their soil. They [the Gulf countries] are paying [Egypt] in order to keep such war away from their homes”.

On Syria, Sabahi supports a more cautious policy and is critical of “the criminal armed gangs that have stolen [the] Syrian revolution to serve the interests of a group of Takfiris [religious hardliners]”. Sabahi and representatives of his campaign have appeared on pro-Syrian regime television stations, such Al Mayadeen and Al Manar.

Sabahi wants to build better relations with Turkey, Iran and Russia. He  praised a recent trip made by Sisi to Russia as “a step to correct Egypt’s role because Egypt needs to strike balanced relations with world powers”.

Sabahi is more critical of Egypt’s relations with the United States and says if elected president, he would work to amend Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel to give Egypt more of a security presence in Sinai. He would also work to ease the suffering of Gazans and to support Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation, emphasising that defending legitimate rights “does not mean slipping into war with Israel”.

Source: Al Jazeera