Hamdeen Sabahi: No Role for Egypt’s Veteran Opposition Figure in 2018 Elections
“Egypt needs a broad democratic front on the left,” said at the opening of a conference of the Social Popular Alliance Party (SPAP) in September 2017. The conference, which Fanack attended, included all major socialist parties and aimed to discuss their stance towards the presidential elections in March 2018.
Sabahi, one of Egypt’s most prominent and enduring opposition figures, addressed Egypt’s economic problems, relations with Israel and the 25 January Revolution in 2011, while stressing that Egyptians deserve an alternative to both the current regime under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the previous Muslim Brotherhood. Although the times have changed, these themes broadly reflect views that Sabahi has held since his political career began in the 1970s as a leftist activist under President Anwar Sadat.
Sabahi was born in the Nile Delta in 1954, the youngest of 11 children. After working as a fisherman in his younger years, he went to Cairo University to study mass communication. He became known to the public in 1977 for debating Sadat in response to the so-called bread riots that followed the termination of state subsidies on basic foodstuffs. As a Nasserist politician, Sabahi criticized Sadat’s liberalization policy and government corruption.
Sabahi was first detained for his political activism in 1981. He would be arrested 16 more times throughout the years. In the 1990s, he was active in the Arab Democratic Nasserist Party and ran, unsuccessfully, for parliament. Division in the party eventually led to his suspension, upon which he established and became leader of the Karama (‘dignity’) Party. He was elected as a member of parliament in 2000, after running as an independent candidate.
Throughout his political career he has been vocal on regional issues, expressing support for the Palestinian cause and resisting peace with Israel, opposing American airstrikes against Iraq in 1991 and backing Lebanon during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War.
In 2004, he was involved in establishing the grassroots movement Kefaya (‘enough’), which played an important role in the 25 January Revolution that led to the downfall of long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak. Sabahi supported and participated in the revolution from the beginning.
In the first presidential elections after Mubarak’s ouster, Sabahi ran on a platform of democracy, rule of law, economic reforms and an end to corruption. He gained support from secular activists and ended third, winning 21 per cent of the votes. His popularity came as a surprise as he lacked a proper campaign organization compared to other candidates.
Mohamed Aly, a media worker in his early 30s who voted for Sabahi in 2012, said that for him, Sabahi represented the values of the revolution. “He was the runner closest to me as a person, he slept for nights in Tahrir Square during the revolution,” Aly told Fanack Chronicle. “He was also far from both the old regime and Islamists. His speeches spoke about the main things that had made us start the revolt, like social justice, freedom and caring for the poor.”
After the elections, Sabahi formed the Popular Current, first as a protest movement and later as a political party. He also became a founding member of the National Salvation Front, a coalition of political groups that spearheaded opposition against Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi, who came to power on 30 June 2012. Exactly a year later, he was one of the driving forces behind the protests that ended in a coup d’etat.
After Morsi was overthrown by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Sabahi expressed support for the army. Other leftist or pro-revolution groups distanced themselves from al-Sisi, who had launched a harsh crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood supporters on the pretext of fighting terrorism. Sabahi maintained that the 30 June protests and Morsi’s removal amounted to a ‘revolution’ against the Brotherhood, and not a military coup as other opposition groups have described it.
Even after the security forces violently dispersed two pro-Morsi protest camps in Cairo in August 2013, killing at least 600 people, Sabahi continued to support the army. On the other hand, Mohamed ElBaradei, also a member of the National Salvation Front who served as vice-president after Morsi’s ouster, resigned from the government after the dispersals and went into self-imposed exile.
In 2014, Sabahi ran for president again, this time only against al-Sisi. He lost in a landslide, winning less than 3 per cent of the votes against 96 per cent for al-Sisi. Sabahi has been widely criticized for running because his participation served only to legitimize the election of al-Sisi, whose victory was certain from the outset given the undemocratic climate and unconditional support of the media and security services for the former general.
In an interview with Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram in 2014, Sabahi acknowledged that a military man running for president would “not have been accepted” right after the 30 June protests, but he defended al-Sisi’s candidacy nevertheless. “The reason why it is an option now is that there is terrorism, and in [the] opposition many see that we need an iron fist,” he said, adding that the revolutionary block was too divided, essentially forcing the army to step in.
He did elaborate in the interview about a “strongly polarized environment, tainted by hate speech and exclusion”, and warned that the “rightful fight against terrorism” should not be used “to unrightfully violate rights and freedoms”.
However, it seemed at the time that Sabahi hoped the repressive course on which the government had embarked could still be changed. “There are signs of electoral bias [of state institutions] that may be a step towards blatant violations of the right to any democratic competition … there is, however, still a possibility it may not.”
Nonetheless, Aly, the media worker, did not vote for Sabahi again in 2014. “I felt it was an act and we would not achieve anything,” he said. In late 2015, the Popular Current boycotted the parliamentary elections, citing an unfair election process.
After a few quiet years, Sabahi was back in the news in May 2016, when he staged a sit-in at the Karama Party’s headquarters to protest the transfer of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. In an interview with the news site al-Monitor, Sabahi said that the arrest of dozens of others who had protested the deal jeopardized the right to peaceful expression. “Instead of resorting to dialogue, the authorities used the security forces as a major tool to deal with those voicing a different opinion. Tyranny is the name of the game,” he said, adding that the protest law passed in 2013 under which protesters had been arrested should be reconsidered.
Sabahi further reiterated his concerns about closer ties with Israel, in line with views he has held throughout his career. “The current authorities … are working to make Egypt move from leadership to dependency.”
In the al-Monitor interview, Sabahi seemed to have a much less favourable view of the al-Sisi regime and military interference in politics compared to 2014, saying the revolution “was stolen twice”, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood and the post-30 June regime.
In the 2018 presidential elections, there seems to be no major role for Sabahi. The candidate with political views closest to his own is Khaled Ali, also part of the leftist camp and present during Sabahi’s speech at the SPAP conference in September. The broad front on the left that Sabahi spoke about could rally around Ali’s candidacy. However, it would not be the first time that internal divisions pulled the leftist opposition apart.