Why did Sabbahi - 'one of us' - do so well?

Ekram Ibrahim , Friday 25 May 2012

Taking 'one of us' as his presidential campaign slogan, Hamdeen Sabbahi went from an outlying candidate to one of the frontrunners; Ahram Online explores how

Hamdeen Sabbahi prostrates thanking God after he knew he was second runner in presidential elections'results at his presidential campaign HQ on 25 May, 2012.

During revolutionary times, remarkable social, cultural and economic changes occur. Each phase potentially carries new surprises as a reflection of these emerging changes.

The emergence of Nasserist candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi in third place, so far, behind the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, Mohamed Morsi and Mubarak-era Ahmed Shafiq reveals the significant portion of Egyptians thirsty for social justice.

After Islamists – the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists – successfully campaigned for a 'yes' vote in a referendum on the constitutional declaration in March 2011, and then swept the parliamentary elections later in the year, the Islamists managed to win only on average 42 per cent of votes in the presidential elections. This 42 per cent, a significant decline from Islamists' successes over the past year, is divided between the Brotherhood candidate, Morsi and the moderate Islamist candidate, Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh who was expelled from the Brotherhood.

Moreover the difference in votes won by Morsi and by Sabbahi is not significant.

"Sabbahi has succeeded in portraying himself as one of the people, and so many Egyptians voted for him, even though his campaign was small and under-resourced," Emad Gad, political analyst and member of parliament told Ahram Online.

The core message of Sabbahi's campaign is social justice and a good life for all Egyptians. In a country in which 40 per cent of the population live on less than $2 a day, these messages resonate.

“My campaign is for all Egyptians and especially a campaign for the poor and the alleviation of the struggle between the classes,” Sabbahi repeated in different press conferences. Sabbahi also promised a rise in salaries for most working citizens if he won the presidential elections. "Many of middle class citizens, the poor, workers and peasants voted for Sabbahi," Gamal Fahmy, a Nasserist columnist told Ahram Online.

It is not only economic reasons that lie behind the support for Sabbahi. For many, Sabbahi was the only viable candidate who was neither feloul (a 'remnant' from the former regime) nor Islamist. Some Egyptians fear Islamist control over the presidency and the parliament and what the impact would be for personal freedoms. Meanwhile, others who voted for the Islamists in the parliamentary elections have been disillusioned by their poor performance.

Sabbahi was also a safe resort for those who refused to vote for remnants of the old regime.

In the marathon five-hour televised presidential debate between Abul-Fotouh and former foreign minister under Mubarak, Amr Moussa, both candidates failed to impress, leaving many voters disappointed. This worked in Sabbahi's favour as well. For some voters the debate revealed that Abul-Fotouh was more of an Islamic candidate than a revolutionary liberal one, and for others Moussa came off as far less promising than had been expected.

Being Nasserist, pursuing a socialist agenda with social justice at its heart, committed to personal freedoms and promising a national agenda against all foreign intervention makes Sabbahi appealing to many revolutionaries. Sabbahi's presidential program could be summarised in the slogan of the revolution; "bread, freedom, dignity and social justice."

"I was standing shoulder to shoulder on 28 January in Galaa street with Hamdeen, he represents me , the revolution and people," Laila El-Refai, 25, told Ahram Online, describing her experiences of what is described as the 'Day of Rage' during the 18 days of mass protests that led to the fall of former president Hosni Mubarak.

Less than two weeks before the polls, more than 500 public figures, revolutionaries and intellectuals announced their support for Sabbahi. Among those were the Revolution Youth Coalition, Peaceful Change Youth Movement, the mother of a symbol of the Egyptian Revolution – the mother of Khaled Said – Alaa El-Aswani, columnist and novelist, Abdel-Halim Kandil, columnist. Sabbahi's chances seemed to be increasingly looking up in the days approaching the polls.

Youth also make up a good chunk of Sabbahi's voters. He was able to capture the imagination of many young Muslims and Copts, particularly those who identify the revolution. At 57, Sabbahi was also one of the youngest presidential candidates.

For some people, Sabbahi's Nasserism set off alarm bells. Sabbahi sought to offset this by distancing himself from aspects of the Nasser era and promising he would not be another Nasser. For others, Nasserism also evokes a period of national pride and greater social justice than the period that has elapsed since then.

Whether Sabbahi makes it to the second round or not, the high turnout for the Nasserist candidate is a source of hope to the poor, the revolutionaries, intellectuals and to all those who believe in social justice for Egypt.

"These results are an expression of the Egyptians' capacity for change and for creating a better Egypt," Fahmy told Ahram Online.

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