Hamdeen Sabbahi

Ekram Ibrahim, Monday 2 Apr 2012

Hamdeen Sabahi
Hamdeen Sabahi (Photo: Reuters)

A veteran Nasserist opposition figure and former member of parliament, Hamdeen Sabbahi is an outspoken critic of the United States and Israel.

Born in 1954 in the Delta governorate of Kafr El-Sheikh, Sabbahi studied mass communication at Cairo University.

Raised in a peasant family in the coastal city of Balteem, he was the youngest of 11 children. Sabbahi spent his childhood among other peasants and fishermen, and himself worked as a fisherman in his younger years.

Sabbahi's wife, Siham Negm, also a long-time Nasserist, currently serves as head of the Women and Society Association, as well as secretary-general of the Arab Network for Literacy and Adult Education. The couple have two children: Salma a well-known television presenter and singer (who has produced several popular pro-revolution songs), and Mohamed an aspiring filmmaker.

Along with his political activism, Sabbahi is a journalist and poet.

Before the revolution

Sabbahi’s interest in journalism was evident in his student years, serving as editor-in-chief of Cairo University's The Students magazine. He has been a member of the Egyptian Press Syndicate since the 1980s.

A politically-active student, Sabbahi was elected head of the Cairo University students’ union in 1975 and served as deputy chair of the General Federation of Students from 1975 to 1977.

He established the political Nasserist Thought Club to mobilise on Cairo University’s campus in defence of the principles of Abdel-Nasser's 1952 revolution in a context of later rapprochement efforts with the West by then-president Anwar El-Sadat.

In 1977, following the January popular uprising against president Sadat over skyrocketing food prices, Sabbahi publicly confronted the president in a televised meeting in which he spoke on behalf of the Cairo University Student Union. As a result, Sabbahi was prohibited from working as a journalist in the state media sector for several years.

Sabbahi’s membership in the Arab Democratic Nasserist Party was suspended in 1994 due to internal conflicts between the party's young cadres – including Sabbahi – and the party's old guard of personalities who had been close to late president Nasser.

In 1996 Sabbahi founded the Arab Nasserist Al-Karama Party and was twice elected to the People's Assembly in 2000 and 2005.

Sabbahi was jailed several times over the course of his political career. One of these arrests was under Sadat in 1981 along with 1500 politicians, intellectuals and activists in what was a major crackdown on opposition from across the political spectrum.

Sabbahi was again arrested in 1997, under the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak, on charges of inciting agricultural workers to protest against new legislation that strengthened the hand of landowners against poor tenant farmers.

In 2003, as a sitting MP, his parliamentary immunity was lifted and he was subsequently jailed for his involvement in organising demonstrations against the US-led war on Iraq that year.

Sabbahi was also among the co-founders of the pro-democracy Kefaya (Enough) movement, which emerged in 2004. The movement played a significant role in building opposition to the unpopular regime of Mubarak, especially his attempts to groom his son, Gamal, to succeed him as president.

In 2010, he was one of the co-founders of the National Assembly for Change (NAC), which sought constitutional reform and social justice. Other prominent NAC members included former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed ElBaradei, writer and activist Alaa El-Aswani and human rights activist George Ishaq.

He participated since the 1970s in establishing solidarity campaigns and committees with both Lebanese and Palestinian groups opposed to the normalisation of relations with Israel.

The revolution and beyond

Sabbahi participated in last year's Tahrir Square uprising from the outset, and was lightly injured while taking part in anti-regime demonstrations in his home governorate of Kafr El-Sheikh.

In the year since the uprising against Mubarak, Sabbahi has remained a vocal critic of Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has governed the country since Mubarak's ouster. He has participated in several protests against the ruling military council, and has also given numerous lectures devoted to the revolution and Egypt's post-revolution situation at universities across Egypt.

The veteran Nasserist officially announced his presidential bid in March 2011, opting to run on an independent ticket and not through the Karama Party. He did not run in the parliamentary elections later in the year, in order to focus on the presidential contest. 

In August of last year, Sabbahi participated in demonstrations at the Israeli embassy in Cairo declaring that in the event that he wins the upcoming election he would halt all sales of Egyptian natural gas to Israel. 

He has said in recent interviews that he would commit the Egyptian government to providing material aid to the Palestinian resistance against Israeli occupation. In line with his long-time opposition to Israel, Sabbahi has consistently rejected Egypt's Camp David peace agreement with the self-proclaimed Jewish state. He has said, however, that as president he would put the issue before a popular referendum.

Sabbahi has criticised the way the SCAF deals with protesters, such as the Maspero clashes which left 26 mostly Coptic protesters dead in October 2011, and in November when the Mohamed Mahmoud Street battles between security forces and revolutionaries left 40 dead and hundreds injured.

As the Mohamed Mahmoud battle raged, hundreds of activists collected thousands of petitions calling on Sabbahi – alongside Mohamed ElBaradei and Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh – to form a national salvation government to take charge of the country’s affairs in place of the SCAF. The idea, however, never materialised.

Sabbahi opposes the idea of a "safe exit" for the SCAF, insisting the ruling military council should be held accountable for mistakes committed during the transitional period.

In March 2012, Sabbahi said he would be open to teaming up with other would-be presidential contenders who supported the January 25 Revolution, such as Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, Bothaina Kamel and Khaled Ali.

Winning cards

* Sabbahi has a solid reputation for his opposition to state policy under presidents Sadat and Mubarak. His unwavering support for last year's uprising appeals to many protesters and young activists.

* Sabbahi enjoys considerable popularity among sections of the working classes due to his upbringing and background.

Odds against                                

* For those who criticise the Nasser regime’s suppression of political freedoms and nationalisation policies, Sabbahi’s longstanding Nasserist affiliations are a disadvantage.

* Some critics believe that Sabbahi's electoral prospects may suffer due to the presence of other leftist presidential candidates, which include Khaled Ali, Abul-Ezz El-Hariri and Bothaina Kamel. Many may also vote for the liberal Islamist Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh.A veteran Nasserist opposition figure and former member of the People's Assembly (lower house), Hamdeen Sabbahi is an outspoken critic of the United States and Israel.


Additional research by Sarah Mourad

To view profiles of other major candidates in the 2012 presidential elections, click here

Short link: