Hamdeen Sabahi grew up here, on the Mediterranean coast 200 miles north of Cairo, among farmers and fishermen, two of the country’s most impoverished communities. As Baltim’s most famous son, he was celebrated as “president of the poor.”
But his campaign to become Egypt’s president was never given much of a chance, even though his campaign posters are found almost everywhere here, on storefronts, taxi windshields and even framed and strung from the balconies of private homes. Nobody really expected an Arab nationalist with agrarian roots to stand a chance against the wealthy Islamists and prominent former-regime figures who dominated the race to the first presidential polls since Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year.
Then came Saturday’s surprise election commission ruling that disqualified the three front-runners in the race: Muslim Brotherhood financier Khairat el Shater, former spy chief Omar Suleiman and ultraconservative cleric Hazem Salah Abu Ismail. Suddenly second-tier candidates such as Sabahi, reform-minded Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, former Arab League chief Amr Moussa, and another independent Islamist, Mohamed Selim Awa, seemed to have a chance.
Sabahi didn’t waste a moment in seizing on the sudden vacuum, releasing a statement the night of the decision in which he criticized the committee’s ruling as “unacceptable.” Nevertheless, he bid his erstwhile opponents a firm goodbye.
“I wish all of them good luck,” the statement said. “They would have enriched the competition.”
The three top candidates were excluded along with seven others. Eliminated contenders have a 48-hour window to appeal the decision before the announcement, expected Wednesday, of the final list of candidates who will appear on the ballot next month.
Sabahi’s name is sure to be included, and the residents of Baltim hope the list stays abbreviated. They’re fiercely loyal to their native son, and both young and old can rattle off his biography by heart: 58 years old, former journalist, opposition figure against Mubarak, 10-year member of Parliament, and, most of all, a leading follower of the ideas of the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser and a vociferous opponent of the signing of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.
On the campaign trail, Sabahi is a mesmerizing force, pressing hands with Egyptians who are so accustomed to neglect from the political elites that they follow him in crowds, through trash-strewn alleyways, slack-jawed as he asks about the price of tomatoes.
“He is our protector,” said Mohamed Mowafi, 31, who works at the electricity company in Baltim.
“We trust Sabahi _ he’s always among us and serving us. Even when he was a member of Parliament, he remained here with us,” Mowafi added.
Sabahi’s other stances also make him attractive to undecided revolutionary voters, who’ve complained of Islamists and Mubarak-era politicians commandeering the youth-led revolution to serve their own interests.
Sabahi, for example, rejects an amnesty deal for the ruling generals, who are worried that they could face murder charges once they abdicate power. The Muslim Brotherhood floated the clemency idea but dialed back after a public backlash.
“I have no option but putting anyone who participated in the killings and attacks on protesters to fair trial, even if those are members of the ruling military council,” Sabahi said in an interview with McClatchy. “That’s what I call the ‘fair exit’ for the military rulers, not the ‘safe exit’ as some other candidates may have proposed.”
Sabahi doesn’t shy away from American-style mudslinging, either. The candidacy of the former intelligence czar, Suleiman, “is an insult to the Egyptian people and an attempt to reproduce the former regime,” he said.
And the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to join the presidential race, he added, was fueled by “political greed and attempts to seize more political territory.” He accused the Brotherhood of “imitating the policies” of Mubarak’s now-defunct National Democratic Party, which kept a three-decade stranglehold on political life.
Sabahi is intimately familiar with the former regime’s human rights violations; he was jailed 17 times for his opposition work, he said with a measure of pride, under both Mubarak and his predecessor, Anwar Sadat. The most famous photo of Sabahi shows him dressed in prisoner’s garb, handcuffed to a guard.
Sabahi refers to his presidential campaign as “part development project, part war on poverty.”
He’s known in Baltim as a champion of the Egyptian underclass, but his stance against Israel appears to be the centerpiece of his national campaign, a cause that resonates with his downtrodden, peasant-class constituents.
Like the other candidates, he says he wouldn’t target the peace treaty if elected president. Unlike the other hopefuls, however, Sabahi advocates the direct funding of Palestinian “resistance” movements, which presumably would include militant groups.
Sabahi declared that his presidency would “put an end to the era of pampering Israel.”
“Everything besides the peace treaty is subject to change. Israel will not enjoy the exceptional privileges it was granted before,” Sabahi said. “I am not Hosni Mubarak who paid the price of pleasing Washington through Tel Aviv.”
That kind of rhetoric is appealing to a broad base of Egyptians, leftists and Islamists alike. However, Egypt’s fractious politics extend all the way to far-flung Baltim, where Sabahi’s hometown support took a hit when the Muslim Brotherhood reversed on a promise and named Shater as presidential candidate, ordering members to vote for him.
“Hamdeen is like a brother to me. I’ve known him since we were kids. But, unfortunately, I can’t vote for him after my group pushed in a candidate,” explained Hamada Shafka, 42, a supermarket owner and Brotherhood supporter.
The candidate exclusions, however, now leave a window in which Shafka and other local Islamists might be able to vote for their old friend after all. That is, if he can beat out the backup candidate registered by the prescient Brotherhood.
“If he is a finalist against anyone other than the Muslim Brotherhood,” Shafka said, “I will vote for him.”
Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.