The presidential elections commencing on Wednesday are on his mind as Aladen Ghafar, stuck on a bridge over the Nile, tries to weave his cab through the dense evening traffic.
As levels of impatience climb and the honking grows louder, he calms his nerves by tuning into a local FM station that airs verses from the Koran. Commonsense would bracket Mr. Ghafar, a devout Muslim, as a typical voter for the Islamic parties. But when asked about his choice of presidential candidate, he declares his support for Hamdeen Sabbahi, the poet-turned politician who draws inspiration from Gemal Abdel Nasser, the secular founding President of modern Egypt. “Mr. Sabbahi is a decent person. He cares for the common man and is also part of the change that has dawned on Egypt after the January 25 revolution.”
In a society that has endured considerable chaos after the collapse of the regime of Hosni Mubarak last year and is now clawing at elusive certainties, Mr. Sabbahi's Nasserite legacy helps. But it is more than nostalgic symbolism of a stable bygone era that is causing voters to pitch for him.
While retaining the most progressive elements of the legacy of the late Nasser, including his focus on Arab nationalism, Mr. Sabbahi is not a politician in the classical Nasserite mould. In fact, he came into his own only after running battles with the Nasserites' elderly coterie that culminated in the formation of the Karama party, which he headed.
During his campaign, where his down-to-earth demeanour has been highlighted, Mr. Sabbahi is seen as equally comfortable praying at local mosques with people drawn from the working class, or shaking hands with peasants from the Upper Egypt area.
Mr. Sabbahi's campaigners differentiate their candidate from other non-Islamist rivals—chiefly Ahmed Shafiq and Amr Moussa—by highlighting the former's consistent opposition to the Mubarak regime.
After a final rally in Alexandria, one of his supporters, quoted as Hoda Abdalla by the daily Egypt Independent, underscored Mr. Sabbahi's persona. “(Mr.) Moussa and (Mr.) Shafiq are not only remnants of the old regime, but they have surpassed their time. [Mr. Sabbahi] is a man who has been an activist for years, he has political experience and we believe he can stand up to the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) and any member of the previous regime.”
Hailing from a peasant family, Mr. Sabbahi has focused on a programme to counter poverty in a manner that would benefit the Fellahin or small farmers as well as Egypt's unhappy industrial working class.
Analysts point out that despite a modestly funded campaign, Mr. Sabbahi's message—which combines support for secularism without disparaging religion as well as socialism not outside the market framework—is gaining ground among large chunks of the electorate, including minority groups, who fear an Islamist surge after the elections.
Despite his impressive credentials and participation in an energetic campaign, there are, nevertheless, few who see Mr. Sabbahi winning elections or ending up among the top two in the presidential race.
“Mr. Sabbahi has definitely emerged as the dark horse in this presidential contest, but it is doubtful whether he can still cross the finishing line,” says Mohamed Ezz El-Arab, a researcher at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. While the jury is still out on whether he would emerge victorious, it is quite possible that Mr. Sabbahi may emerge as a “spoiler”, capable of soaking enough non-Islamist votes to undermine both Mr. Moussa and Mr. Shafiq or even whittling down margins of support for Abdel-Moneim Abul Fotouh, the soft-Islamist who is also looking for supplementary backing from the Liberal electoral camp.