CAIRO Leftist presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi says he doubts Egypt's army chief will bring democracy if elected, citing alleged rights abuses since he toppled the country's first democratically chosen leader.
Sabahi endorsed Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Mursi last July, but argues that the repression Egypt suffered under autocrat Hosni Mubarak still taints the political landscape three years after his fall.
Sisi is due to announce his candidacy within a week and is likely to win the presidential election by a landslide.
Asked if Sisi could be a democratic leader, Sabahi said the military man's role in guiding Egypt's political transition so far "makes him bear a direct or indirect political responsibility for a list of rights violations".
The popular uprising which ousted Mubarak in 2011 raised hopes of greater freedoms in Egypt, a country at the heart of the Arab world. But progress toward democracy has wavered.
Many Egyptians also saw Mursi as an autocrat during his troubled one-year rule, which ended after mass protests against him and his Muslim Brotherhood gave the army a cue to intervene.
Security forces have since killed hundreds of Brotherhood members in the streets, arrested thousands, and put Mursi and other leaders on trial. Secular activists have also been jailed.
POLITICAL STATUS QUO
Sabahi, imprisoned 17 times under Mubarak, said Egypt was still awaiting a genuinely democratic system.
"The current transitional system did not respect the values of democracy and plurality, and violated the constitution ... in the way it dealt with its opponents," he said. "It did not implement the freedoms the Egyptian people want and deserve."
Sabahi, who came third in the 2012 presidential vote after Mursi and ex-air force chief Ahmed Shafik, said Egypt had yet to cleanse a "rotten" system or create a new breed of politicians.
"The regime that ruled us for decades based on repression and corruption still exists," he said, discounting Mursi-era changes "when his ruling elite had beards" as superficial.
Despite his pessimism, Sabahi asserted that the millions of Egyptians who took to the streets to help remove two presidents in three years would not tolerate a new dictatorship.
"Any attempt to reproduce the old regime will not work. The people are very smart," Sabahi, a 59-year-old former journalist, said. "The future of Egypt is in the revolution. There will be no future for anyone who tries to bring back a former regime."
Many Mubarak-era politicians have reappeared as guests on TV talk shows and at political and army gatherings, while Islamists and former anti-Mubarak protest leaders are now behind bars.
Sabahi said the army-installed government had used its "war on terrorism" as a cover to stifle opponents. "Innocent people got assaulted. An anti-protest law was passed," he said.
Mursi's exit ignited an Islamist insurgency, with the Sinai-based Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis group claiming most of the attacks that have killed more than 200 police and soldiers since July.
Despite the alleged abuses committed on his watch, Sisi appeals to many Egyptians as a decisive figure who can lead the country out of its political and economic crisis.
MAN OF THE REVOLUTION
Sabahi, who is from the Nile Delta town of Kafr el-Sheikh, spoke to Reuters in his Cairo office, where he proudly displays a photograph of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, one of the army officers who overthrew the monarchy in 1952.
He hopes to inspire Egyptians to carry out what he calls an unfinished revolution. Like his hero Nasser - another autocratic leader whose "Arab socialism" failed to bring Egypt prosperity - Sabahi has long advocated farmers' and workers' rights.
"A great revolution happened in this country and it will not be completed unless its people reach power," Sabahi said, referring to the overthrow of Mubarak.
"I am from the heart of the people. I am, without monopolizing such right, the one to represent the revolution, its demands and goals of social justice and democracy."
Sabahi, twice elected to parliament under Mubarak, came first in Egypt's second city Alexandria, Suez and several Nile Delta governorates in the 2012 polls that Mursi won overall.
This time round, the smooth-talking, jovial politician seems to be betting on support from youths who joined the anti-Mubarak revolt, but who he says might boycott the election because the media and state have been working overtime to promote Sisi.
"The revolutionaries have not reached power, not because the people are weak, but because the political forces are weak," he said, referring to opposition parties lacking the organization and former mass appeal of the now-outlawed Brotherhood.
"I am going through this difficult battle (of running against Sisi) with the goal of persuading the people who love the army and the state not to turn against the revolution."
(This story was refiled to clarify paragraph 23)
(Editing by Alistair Lyon)