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From Nasser to Sabbahi, the dream of social justice lives on

Some 60 years after the July 1952 Revolution, many Egyptians voted for Hamdeen Sabbahi in the presidential race out of a yearning for the social justice promised by Gamal Abdel Nasser

Randa Ali , Monday 23 Jul 2012
Naser and Hamdeen
Naser and Hamdeen
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In Al-Muezz Street, one of Cairo's oldest thoroughfares, where it is common to find pictures of late President Gamal Abdel Nasser, hung either for sale or out of continuing adoration, a man owning an antique shop caught me staring at the former leader's visage.

He noticed my fascination with the picture, and immediately asked if I was "a Nasserist." I nodded and he smiled and stated: "Then you must have voted for Hamdeen Sabbahi."

The antique shop owner was not the only Egyptian to tie his voting decision to the erstwhile national hero. While many voted for Sabbahi in search of a revolutionary or secular president, many were hopeful of bringing back to life their nostalgia for a time they remember as a golden era for Egypt.

Sabbahi's life-long inspiration and leader of the 23 July Revolution, Nasser, was his lucky charm in the elections, some argued. "He's a modern Nasser," said Ramadan Abu-Setta, a 67-year-old grocery owner in Alexandria's Mahatet El-Raml district.

"He wanted to liberate the people and give them their freedom back; and he knew how to reach out and speak to us, just like Nasser did," said Abu-Setta. "We've been broken for years and Sabbahi was going to bring us back our rights," he added.

"Mubarak sold everything. Many of the factories that Nasser built for the Egyptians are now gone," Abu-Setta said.

The pro-Sabbahi vote in the first round of the presidential elections was a surprise to everyone. The Nasserist candidate came third, closely following Mubarak's last prime minister and the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi.

Abu-Setta spoke of how he travelled all the way to Sohag, his home town in Upper Egypt to campaign for Sabbahi. "I had a dream that Sabbahi would follow in the path of Nasser, but in a modernised way, with democracy," he said.

Sabbahi was seen by many the way he liked to refer to himself: as the "candidate of the poor." Many believed he was their main hope to achieve social justice. "Hamdeen cares for the poor, workers, peasants and even the handicapped. The man was going to a appoint a handicapped minister for their own ministry."

Abu-Setta's dream seems to have faded with the win of Morsi. "The Muslim Brotherhood are a group of rich people; they won't give us back any of our rights. I see another NDP (National Democratic Party) in the making" said Abu-Setta 

Sixty-three-year-old Zizi ached as she remembered the time of Nasser, which was the happiest of her life. She spoke of those days as a "time of prosperity and comfort."

"We didn’t worry as much as we do today. Life was easier. I now sometimes go to work in tears," the old lady said. She has been unhappily working at beauty salons for 20 years and dreams of a government that would offer an easier life for people her age.

Sabbahi reminded Zizi of Nasser, and for her, that was enough reason to give him her vote.

"I believed that he'd be there for us. He cared and spoke of no one but the poor, and we've been through a lot. Just like Nasser who used to listen to our demands, I was certain that Sabbahi wouldn't have let us down," she said.

For many, the choice of Sabbahi wasn't just for him being an advocate of social justice, as Nasser was, but also for the possibility of following in the steps of Nasser as a true nationalist leader.

Theatre professor Mahmoud El-Lozy believes that any hope for a better future in Egypt has to be inspired by Nasserist times.

"Whatever good Egypt is now surviving on is the remains of what was brought by Nasser. Back then there was a call for political liberation and independence," said El-Lozy

The Egyptian leader was popular among Arabs for bringing back the dream of pan-Arabism and raising the quest for self-determination after decades of colonial government.

"Now Egypt's decision making is taken between Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel," El-Lozy added

Being a proud Arab nationalist and anti-imperialist himself, Sabbahi succeeded in reflecting Nasser's dreams.

"I heard what Hamdeen Sabbahi had to say and believed that this man could take the needed steps away from all the corruption brought by the Camp David regime of Sadat and Mubarak," El-Lozy added.

Former President Anwar El-Sadat has often been accused of abandoning the political and economic principles of the Nasser era by embracing a liberal economic policy and signing a peace treaty with the State of Israel in 1979 following the Camp David Accords.

His successor, ousted president Hosni Mubarak, became an even stronger ally of the US and Israel, condemned for promoting normalisation with Israel through supporting the export of Egyptian natural gas to Israel at far below market prices.

"I personally believe that whoever opposes the time of Nasser is someone who wants no good for Egypt," said El-Lozy.

El-Lozy stressed that for being a protester almost all his life and later a parliamentarian, Hamdeen Sabbahi's "stance was clear on all levels, unlike other the candidates who said nothing but clichéd rhetoric."

"Now there's no way out, and even the alternative is being fought by both the left and right of the Sadat-Mubarak regime," said El-Lozy.

In spite of the Nasserist candidate's failure in the presidential elections, many are still watching closely for the role he could play outside the presidential palace.

While promising to offer "a third path," in contrast to Islamist rule or military hegemony, vagueness still surrounds his plans.

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