The Nasserist journalist’s humble beginnings make him popular with the working class
Exactly two years later and on the eve of the presidential elections, Egypt Today revisit its interview with opposition contender Hamdeen Sabbahy.
By Randa El Tahawy
A popular Nasserist figure and founder of Al-Karama Party, Hamdeen Sabbahy has long been an opposition force, both during Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak’s rule.
Sabbahy was born in 1954 in Balteem, a coastal city in the Delta governorate of Kafr El-Sheikh. He was raised in a peasant family and is the youngest of 11 children. Due to his upbringing and background, Sabbahy enjoys much popularity among the working class, a focal point reflected in his presidential campaign slogan to describe him as “One of Us.”
The politically active journalist and poet is married with two children. His wife Siham Negm, who also shares his Nasserist ideas, is the head of the Women and Society Association and the secretary general of the Arab Network for Literacy and Adult Education.
Sabbahy’s daughter Salma is a TV presenter and singer, while his son Mohamed is an aspiring filmmaker.
Sabbahy’s participation in the January 25 Revolution has put him in favor with many pro-revolution activists.
Over the past year, Sabbahy has also been a vocal critic of the policies of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and he opposes the idea of a “safe exit” for the SCAF, insisting that the council be held accountable for mistakes committed under their rule. He particularly expressed his discontent with the SCAF’s methods of dealing with protesters during the Maspero clashes, which left 26 protesters, mostly Copts, dead in October 2011.
During the Mohamed Mahmoud street battles in November 2011, which resulted in the death of 40 civilians and the injury of hundreds, Sabbahy, along with Mohamed ElBaradei and Abdel Moneim Abolfotoh, was petitioned by scores of activists to form a national salvation government to replace the SCAF’s rule.
Sabbahy officially launched his presidential campaign in March 2012, announcing an ambitious goal of building Egypt to rank eighth among the world’s 10 strongest economies by 2020 and es- tablishing a democratic regime that respects civil freedoms, social justice and equal distribution of wealth. His political agenda features many issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the ties between Egypt and Israel. Sabbahy has consistently expressed a strong opposition to Israel and at one point announced at a rally that the first thing he would do in office would be to cancel the Camp David Agreement. (This was despite earlier announcing he would put the issue before a popular referendum if elected.) Last August, Sabbahy participated in demonstrations at the Israeli Embassy in Cairo and stated that he would halt all sales of Egyptian natural gas to Israel if he wins the up- coming presidential elections. [At press time, the gas deal had already been terminated.]
Since the 1970s, Sabbahy has taken part in solidarity campaigns and committees with both Lebanese and Palestinian groups opposed to the normalization of relations with Israel.
The activist’s early career was shaped by his interest in journalism. He holds both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in mass communication from Cairo University and was editor in chief of Cairo University’s The Students magazine. He also served as editor in chief of the weekly paper Al Karama and has been part of the Press Syndicate since the 1980s.
Besides his interest in journalism, Sabbahy was also a veteran student activist, elected head of Cairo University students’ union in 1975 and serving as deputy chair of the General Federation of Students from 1975 to 1977.
He has also always been a partisan of Nasserism. He established the political Nasserist Thought Club to mobilize the Cairo University campus. Following the January popular uprising against Sadat over the rise of food prices in 1977, Sabbahy publicly confronted the president in a televised meeting, in which he represented the Cairo University student union. His bluntness resulted in Sadat prohibiting Sabbahy from working as a journalist in the state media sector for several years.
Sabbahy has been jailed several times under the rules of Sadat and Mubarak. He was arrested in 1981 and is said to have been the youngest of the 1,500 activists detained as part of the famous crackdowns on opposition during Sadat’s time. Under Mubarak rule, Sabbahy was arrested in 1997 and charged with inciting agricultural workers to protest against new legislation that critics said strengthened the hand of landowners against poor tenant farmers.
Sabbahy was elected to the People’s Assembly in 2000 and 2005, representing the district of Berlos Wal Hamoul in Kafr El-Sheikh. As a sitting MP in 2003, he was arrested for joining the anti-Iraq war protests and refused to use his political immunity as an MP to annul the sentence. In 2005, he expressed a desire to run in the 2005 presidential elections, though he later changed his mind and called upon citizens and opposition groups to boycott them.
Besides his strong commitment to Nasserism, Sabbahy was among the founding members of the Kefaya movement in 2004, a pioneer opposition movement against the rule of Mubarak and the succession of his son Gamal. In 2010, along with Mohamed ElBaradei, former director of the Inter- national Atomic Energy Agency; writer and activist Alaa El-Aswany and human rights activist George Ishaq, Sabbahy cofounded the National Assembly for Change (NAC), which sought constitutional re- form and social justice.
In July, the Shabrawy Sufi order announced their endorsement of Sabbahy’s campaign. However, his long-time Nasserist affiliation may not be shared with many voters and may be a disadvantage amid the presence of other leftist presidential candidates.
In March 2012, Sabbahy said he would be open to teaming up with other presidential contenders who supported the January 25 Revolution, such as Abdel Moneim Abolfotoh, Bothaina Kamel and Khaled Ali. At the end of April, there was much speculation that he was considering a deal with Abolfotoh that would see Sabbahy withdraw his candidacy in return for a guaranteed position as vice president should the former’s bid be successful. Sabbahy denied the rumors, emphasizing that he was running as president, not vice.
Seen and Heard
“I believe, like you, that a great revolution like January 25 must not have humble goals. It’s time to revive the country.”
“Egypt shall return to its Arab sphere to regain its leading position in the Arab world and develop relations with strategic neighbors like Turkey and Iran.”
“The performance of Parliament falls short in comparison to the demands of the revolution and the sacrifices which were made. If compared to previous parliaments, however, the new Parliament is brilliant.”
“The Constitution does not belong to the majority or the minority but to all Egyptians.”“Egypt is a country distinguished by diversity and unity at the same time. This is part of its culture and no one can change that.”
Sabbahy was slightly injured while taking part in anti-regime demonstrations in his home governorate of Kafr El-Sheikh in 2011.
Among the contenders for the upcoming presidential elections, Sabbahy is positioned as a well-known Nasserist figure with a long history of opposition to the previous regime’s policies.