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Crackdown In Egypt Scares Off Presidential Candidates


In Egypt, the presidential campaign season is officially underway. Voting is set to start later this month. The winner is already fairly certain. He's the man with the army behind him, the former head of the military, Abdel Fattah el Sisi. He lead the coup that toppled the unpopular Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi. He also lead a violent and controversial crackdown on opposition and dissent.

Despite all of this, one man has stepped forward to oppose Sisi in the election. Why would he try? NPR's Leila Fadel asked him.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi touts himself as a voice of the revolution in a race where he's the only official voice of opposition.

HAMDEEN SABAHI: (Speaking foreign language)

FADEL: He says he's running against Sisi to insure the election is Democratic. The Nasserist poet ran for president in 2012 and came in third. Islamist Mohammed Morsi won that vote. But as he became increasingly unpopular, Sabahi supported the military coup that ousted Morsi last summer and lead to a wide crackdown. Now, Sabahi's the only man going up against the leader of that coup.

But nobody thinks Sabahi can beat the popular ex-military chief, Sisi. Sisi's posters pepper every street of the capital. Sisi's a lion, the fighter of terrorism, the savior of Egypt. You're hard pressed to find one of the white-haired smiling Sabahi and his slogan: one of us. But in a recent interview, Sabahi says he's not giving up.

SABAHI: (Through interpreter) We will stay in this battle till the end and we will not back out of it, unless we are faced with obvious forgery that would go against the voters' wills.

FADEL: Members of Sabahi's campaign have been harassed by Sisi's supporters and in some cases detained. Even though Sisi had already announced his intentions to run on state television, Sabahi got in trouble for holding a press conference before the official opening of the campaign season.

SABAHI: (Through interpreter) We will fight for our rights as stated in the law.

FADEL: Sabahi isn't a champion for everyone's human rights. He, like his opponent, says there is no place for Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt anymore. And that's a popular stance. But Sabahi is trying to create an image as a secular man of the people. He says he will abolish a controversial protest law that has landed thousands in jail.

SABAHI: (Through interpreter) As soon as I get elected president, I will remove that law and I will leave room for a more democratic law to replace it and I will release all those who got arrested because of that law.

FADEL: And he even goes so far as to say a military man shouldn't be running for president.

SABAHI: (Through interpreter) It is best for the army to stay away from the presidency, to stay as a protector, not as a ruler, and not as a intruder in politics.

FADEL: Some say Sabahi's run only dresses up what's actually a sham election. But Michael Hanna, an Egypt expert at the Century Foundation, says it's more than that. Three years ago people toppled a dictator, Hosni Mubarak, and expected democracy, but now the country is rolling back towards authoritarian rule. And Hanna says even an opposition candidate with no chance at winning is better than nothing.

MICHAEL HANNA: Aspects of the run are to perhaps preserve some of the gains that were made post-Mubarak and have largely evaporated, but preserving a space for electoral dissent is not inconsequential, despite the fact that Egypt is going through an authoritarian relapse of sorts.

FADEL: The authoritarian crackdown scared off other possible candidates and so Sabahi officially kicked off his campaign, shaking hands and speaking to supporters face to face.

SABAHI: (Speaking foreign language)

FADEL: No one thinks he can win, but he's beating the odds just by getting in the race. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.