The name Hamdeen Sabbahi resonates prominently in a small coffee shop in the city of Kafr El-Sheikh, as Egyptians head to the polls in the country's first post-uprising presidential election. Whether heard in discreet conversation or uttered within a loud question thrown to familiar bystanders, asking if they had voted for him or not, the coffeeshop goers make it clear that Sabbahi is a popular choice for president in the Delta city, capital of the governorate bearing the same name. After all he has been their representative in parliament for years.
Sabbahi is a well-known opposition figure and founder of Egypt's Karama Party. He has recently emerged as a candidate with considerable popularity in Egypt's presidential race. In 2005, more than five people were killed in clashes to prevent Mubarak's National Democratic Party rigging the vote against Sabbahi. Sabbahi's supporters considered parliamentary elections at that time as a matter of life or death.
Ahram Online spoke to a senior coordinator in Sabbahi's Kafr El-Sheikh campaign. "There's a feeling of belonging, a feeling of loyalty to the son of the province," says Salaheddin El-Awdan.
El-Awdan, also member of a pro-revolution group called the Egyptian Revolution Union, says Sabbahi has gained a lot of ground. "We wish for a president from us," he says, explaining Sabbahi's popularity. Another reason, he adds, is the greater participation of Kafr El-Sheikh's youth compared to last November's parliamentary election, which he believes should circumvent the power of Islamists who have dominated the legislature.
Next stop, a polling station, one of many housed in the largest conglomeration of schools in the city. Inside, the electoral process was smooth and problem-free. Long lines are nowhere to be seen. Presidential campaign delegates in the station comment on the modest turnout; they say more people are expected to show towards the day's end.
Outside, three youths stand next to the entrance of the station holding a folded placard, when stretched out reads "Loyalty to the martyrs, we are all against remnants of the old regime." The young men study at Kafr El-Sheikh University.
Presidential candidates Amr Moussa and Ahmed Shafiq are both considered remnants of the fallen regime. Both held cabinet posts in the Mubarak era, with Shafiq heading the government during the infamous Battle of the Camel incident, where thugs riding horses and camels stormed Tahrir Square at the height of the uprising in 2011. They are accused of intending to reproduce the Mubarak regime.
The students unanimously agree that the student body at the university will either choose Sabbahi or Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, an ex-Muslim Brotherhood figure who defected in 2011 due to differences with the group and his explicit intention to run for president when the Brotherhood claimed it would not field a candidate.
Abul-Fotouh is popular among the youth nationwide. He is seen as relatively liberal for a candidate with a long Islamist history and is considered by some a revolutionary option for president.
As for Sabbahi, the students acknowledge his vast popularity in the governorate. He garnered the largest number of citizen recommendations, said Ahmed Islam, a student in the Faculty of Engineering, referring to the recommendations necessary to become an official candidate prior to the elections.
Another student, Ibrahim Mohamed, said "he is the son of the province," echoing what El-Awdan had said. A further reason for his popularity, said Faculty of Sciences student Mohamed Youssef is his rhetoric on poverty, which he says appeals to the poor and disenfranchised of society.
The students believe, however, that the Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, is very strong. Islam says the Brotherhood has power centers in Kafr-El Sheikh and there are cases where whole villages will vote for the Brotherhood, such as Al-Kafr Al-Gedid and Ezbit Al-Sheikh.
Ezbit El-Sheikh is a small village 11 kilometres away from the city. At the entrance leading to the school housing its polling station, a few bearded bypassers tell Ahram Online that Morsi is sure to win. Other than them, few were present.
The sole polling station in Ezbit Al-Sheikh is virtually deserted, security personnel engage in small talk, complaining of boredom. The judge heading the station says only 500 are eligible voters here. By 4pm, only 50 had cast their vote.
Moustafa Khedr, a villager who makes a living off transporting goods on a cart toed by a motorcycle, dons a Salafi beard (unaccompanied by a moustache). Khedr disagrees that Morsi is the major choice in Ezbit Al-Sheikh. "My uncle voted for Hamdeen, my father in law for Shafiq," he insists.
Asked about the low turnout, Khedr explains that there is an agricultural season and so many villagers are working in the field. "They make 100 or 150 Egyptian pounds a day. They may vote after work," said Khedr.
At El-Hamra, a larger village next to Ezbit El-Sheikh, the scene differs. In the shade of the polling school, dozens of villagers, young and old, walk about. Two large posters of Sabbahi are in the backdrop, stuck on the school's walls, while a tent, known to belong to Morsi's campaign, towers over seats for people to rest, and a table where a laptop lies.
Ayman Eid, member of an independent group formed in the village campaigning for Sabbahi, says the Brotherhood is committing electoral violations. He points to the laptop saying the Brotherhood is helping villagers find their registration numbers and guiding them to the station. "Many people here cannot read or write, after guiding them, they tell them to vote for Morsi."
While Ahram Online couldn't verify whether this happens or not, the laptop attendant made it clear time and again that the initiative was from Morsi's campaign.
Sabbahi's campaign was also accused of violations. A Morsi supporter, sitting among others on the back of a truck, pointed to Sabbahi's large poster and made a comment about the supposed end of campaigning 48 hours before and during polling.
A group of Sabbahi campaigners who were singing an anthem for him to the rhythm of a drum approached the truck and a verbal exchange commenced. Less than a minute later, the truck was on its way with no scuffled breaking out.
El-Hamra's polling station had 4700 registered to vote; again, no long lines could be seen. One of Morsi's delegates in the polling station said he'd estimate that only 25 per cent showed up, and it was almost 5pm.
Back in Kafr El-Sheikh, and as the sun began to set, lines of voters were visible in and outside polling stations. Men and women alike waited their turn in a city lush with presidential campaign posters and political conversation. But between the two apparent frontrunners, Sabbahi and Morsi, no one could say with certainty who would win.