CAIRO — In a country where opposition figures have been jailed by the thousands and a military man who spearheaded a coup is a likely shoo-in for the presidency, the odds are not looking good for Hamdeen Sabbahi.
Sabbahi, a longtime opposition politician, is the only person in this country of 85 million who is willing to compete against former military commander Abdel Fatah al-Sissi in Egypt’s presidential election next month, the first since Sissi led a coup to oust the country’s first democratically elected president nearly a year ago.
To his critics, Sabbahi’s candidacy is a farce. Cynics dismiss Sabbahi as a pawn in a sham democracy, or suggest that he’s running for the sake of his ego alone. Others say he must be delusional to run against the man who appears to have everything on his side, from the state’s sprawling bureaucracy to its powerful security services and government media.
But to Sabbahi, a charismatic leftist, there is no alternative to playing ball, even if the contest is uneven.
“I’m not idealistic enough to wait for the country to become impartial,’’ he said in an interview last week. “I believe that democracy comes through practice.”
The gray-haired 59-year-old has been in the game long enough to know.
A former parliamentarian, Sabbahi is best known for his opposition to former Egyptian rulers Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak; his admiration for the socialist policies of another former president, Gamal Abdel Nasser; and his aversion to peace with Israel.
Sabbahi came in third in the 2012 race, which ended in a runoff between Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi and a military man. Sabbahi’s supporters argue that with fewer candidates in that election, he might easily have won.
But this election is different, as even Sabbahi concedes.
In the 2012 contest, Egypt’s first democratic presidential election, participants included a dozen Egyptian candidates ranging from liberals to socialists. That there are only two candidates this time underscores how far Egypt's democracy has backtracked since the coup, analysts say.
“Clearly a lot of people are staying away from this race, believing that the political circumstances do not merit entering,” said Issandr El Amrani, an Egypt expert who oversees the International Crisis Group’s North Africa project.
Both candidates in this year's race are 59-year-old nationalists who supported the coup that toppled Morsi, want to see the nation’s democratically elected Islamist leaders remain in jail and are known to praise a military that rights groups and democracy advocates have blamed for human rights abuses and corruption.
Neither man has A offered specific plan for Egypt’s future, but both have promoted their similarity to Nasser in their public campaigns.
“They’re the same — Sissi and Sabbahi,” said Reda Saad, a businessman in the city of Fayoum who voted for Islamists in past elections and plans to boycott the May vote because there is no such option this time. Both men are “egoists who are obsessed with Nasser’s image,” he said. “The people are frustrated.”
Sabbahi insists that’s not true.
Sabbahi was born in Egypt's rural Nile Delta and grew up under Nasser. He became active in politics as a university student, and his opposition to Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel earned him his first stint in jail. He was jailed again under Mubarak. In recent years, his reputation as a critic of capitalist corruption and what some here call Western imperialism has earned him a following among Egypt's secular intellectual class and among youth activists nostalgic for the perceived greatness of the Nasser era.
“I’m a new-era Nasserist,” he said from a couch beside a framed portrait of the late military ruler last week. Like Nasser, Sabbahi said, he wants to see social justice and development for his country.
But whereas “Sissi has the image of Nasser” for “taking the side of the people” in ousting Morsi from power, he said: “I have been on the side of the people for 40 years.”
Unlike Sissi, who has worked to silence protesters and striking laborers in the months since the coup, Sabbahi said his administration would reverse the law that bans protests and form a “clear plan” to improve workers' rights.
Egypt’s pro-military establishment may tolerate Sabbahi’s candidacy because he never says too much. While Sabbahi has criticized an ongoing crackdown on opposition figures, he has stopped short of criticizing Sissi directly and has avoided calling for limits to the military's power.
“I think he’s walking a fine line,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, an Egypt expert at the Century Foundation in Washington.
This month, Egypt’s general prosecutor opened an investigation into Sabbahi’s sources of funding, which the candidate says derives entirely from his own pockets and the modest donations he receives. And Sabbahi came under fire last week in the local press after an independent newspaper leaked what it said was a recording of Sabbahi calling for Sissi’s trial.
There is no telling what response Sabbahi’s supporters will find in the streets when the official campaign season kicks off Wednesday and in the weeks before Egyptians head to the polls May 26 and 27.
But whether he likes it or not, Sabbahi will play a critical role for a government that has increasingly come under pressure from the international community for its treatment of political dissidents, analysts say. For the pro-military establishment, Sabbahi provides the sole competition in what would otherwise be a one-man race.
“The costs of not tolerating his run becomes pretty high,” said Hanna.
Sharaf al-Hourani contributed to this report.