QALYUB, Egypt (Reuters) - The motorcade of Hamdeen Sabahy, a dark horse in Egypt’s presidential race, inched over the bumpy roads of this Egyptian town led by a car booming 1960s nationalist music in homage to his hero, Gamal Abdel Nasser.
The smiling leftist politician has a long history of opposition, first to Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat and then to Hosni Mubarak, who was deposed in last year’s popular uprising.
Sabahy casts himself in this week’s vote as the “president of the poor”, and the big crowds at his rallies suggest he may be making inroads in an election that looks impossible to call.
In Qalyub, a shabby industrial town north of Cairo, he shook hands with factory workers and promised them social justice.
“Vote for the son of Egypt. Vote for the true son of the revolution. Bring the revolution to power,” a voice blared over loudspeakers on a pickup truck in his campaign convoy.
Sabahy is not widely considered a front-runner alongside the likes of former Arab League chief Amr Moussa, Islamist Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi.
But he may take votes from Abol Fotouh, who has sought to appeal to liberals and Islamists alike. He could also damage the chances of the secular-minded Moussa and Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister, by splitting the non-Islamist vote.
Unlike them, he is untainted by links with the Mubarak era. Instead, his credentials are long years of populist struggle.
“My program is the only one that will ensure victory for the main demands of the (anti-Mubarak) January 25 revolution: freedom, social justice and dignity,” Sabahy told Reuters in a steel factory in Qalyub as workers gathered around to listen.
“I am the president of the poor,” he said. “I want to bring justice to those who were wronged for so long.”
Sabahy promises to turn Egypt into an economic powerhouse, bridge inequalities, protect freedoms and rights, and redirect foreign policy away what he sees as subservience to the West.
“WAR ON POVERTY”
He does not say Egypt should rip up its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, which Sadat signed and Mubarak upheld, a posture that secured billions of dollars of mostly military U.S. aid, but he does say Egyptians should have a chance to “review” it.
“I‘m not ... a presidential candidate in search of a war with Israel or any other state,” Sabahy told Reuters last year. “The war I want to fight is the one against poverty.”
Sabahy lacks the name recognition and financial muscle of some other candidates. Nor does he have the organizational strength of the Muslim Brotherhood, but Sabahy has won endorsements from several youth groups involved in the revolt against Mubarak, as well as from intellectuals and celebrities.
His advocacy of socialism and state intervention in the economy might seem outdated and worrying too many Egyptians, but it appeals to some of the millions who feel trapped by poverty, lack of opportunity and failing social services.
Sabahy’s political involvement began when he was a student leader opposed to Sadat, earning himself exclusion later from any post as a university lecturer or a government bureaucrat.
He founded his own centre for media studies and worked with several political parties before setting up his own Karama (Dignity) party. He was elected to parliament in 2000 and 2005 despite the vote-rigging typical of the Mubarak era.
Sabahy also helped found the Kefaya movement that opposed Mubarak for years before the revolt erupted in January 2011.
“Anyone can buy a program but they can’t buy an honorable history of struggle in defense of the rights of Egyptians,” Sabahy said on the campaign trail.
He was detained several times, notably in 1997 when he was pushing for land tenancy reforms for farm workers.
Sabahy has won support from independent labor unions, agricultural rights groups and several of the mothers of those killed in last year’s protests against Mubarak. Youth leaders who endorsed him this month cited his integrity, emphasis on social justice and “long history of struggle”.
His critics say Sabahy offers only unrealistic slogans and are skeptical of his Nasserist background.
Nasser, who led the 1952 coup that toppled the monarchy and ushered in 60 years of military rule, was a charismatic Arab nationalist autocrat whose “Arab socialism” damaged the economy.
Sabahy says he won’t repeat Nasser’s mistakes, but that he respects his desire to change the lives of the poor.
“I don’t think Egyptians will vote on ideology. They will pick a program that responds to their legitimate dreams ... and a man who is similar to his program,” Sabahy told Reuters.
“I have been in prison for the peasants. I stood by the workers. I have been a son of the simple people my entire life.”
Editing by Alistair Lyon