CAIRO (AP) — The two candidates in Egypt’s presidential election as voters decide on the nation’s next leader in two-day elections that end Tuesday.
The 59-year-old former military leader hails from a family of furniture makers. He grew up in the historic neighborhood of Islamic Cairo that is home to al-Azhar, the center of Sunni Muslim learning, and Egypt’s largest crafts market, the Khan Khalili. The family later moved to the new affluent neighborhood of Nasr City.
El-Sissi’s military career began as soon as he graduated from an army-run high school. He obtained a bachelor’s degree from Egypt’s War College in 1977 and went on to earn master’s degrees from Egypt’s military staff college in 1987 and Britain’s military staff college in 1992, according to his campaign website. He also completed a fellowship at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania from 2005 to 2006. While in the U.S., he wrote a paper entitled, “Democracy in the Middle East,” which has been used by some to suggest he supports democracy, but others say it suggests he supports autocracy and political Islam.
After serving as military attache in Saudi Arabia, the end of ousted leader Hosni Mubarak’s era found el-Sissi heading military intelligence, where he remained following the 2011 uprisings that swept Mubarak from power.
He became the youngest member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces led by Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, and gained name-recognition in the spring of 2012 when he defended ‘virginity tests’ conducted on female protesters. In August 2012, then-president and Muslim Brotherhood member Mohammed Morsi unexpectedly sidelined Tantawi, replacing him with el-Sissi.
After removing Morsi on July 3 in a popularly-backed military takeover, el-Sissi rose to international prominence and dizzying national popularity. Chocolates bearing his picture, posters depicting him next to former presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, songs and even poetry idolizing him emerged. As defense minister, he oversaw the violent dispersal of sit-ins in support of Morsi that killed hundreds last August, and a subsequent crackdown on those who opposed the ouster — first Brotherhood supporters, then secular dissidents.
After months of assuring the public that he would not run for office, el-Sissi announced his candidacy for president on March 26, after resigning from the military. His campaign released a 17-point plan, which included a greater role for the state in the management of the economy. He also planned to redraw the borders of some of the provinces, build 22 new industrial cities and eight new airports and reform the education system. He previously cited the need to restore security and stability as Egypt’s top priority.
In recent pre-recorded and tightly controlled televised appearances, he has cast himself as a strong-handed disciplinarian, saying the now-banned Brotherhood will not return on his watch, emphasizing the need for public sacrifices and cautioning the media not to ask for too many freedoms. The balancing of these tough pronouncements with emotional shows of sympathy with the public have led many Egyptians to respond with outpourings of affection for him.
Sabahi, also 59, was born in the resort town of Baltim in the Nile Delta province of Kafr el Sheikh.
Sabahi has been a supporter of Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s nationalist, socialist ideology since his student days when he studied mass communication at Cairo University. His father, a farmer, benefited from Nasser’s land reform scheme that redistributed land to farmers in the Delta. Sabahi spent his career between journalism and politics and went on to participate in and found several political movements.
He co-founded the leftist Karama party in 1996 and was involved in establishing the “Kifaya,” or “Enough” movement in late 2004, which protested government corruption and abuses and was in some ways a precursor to the movement that ousted Mubarak in 2011.
In the first round of the 2012 presidential race, Sabahi had a last-minute surge after campaigning on promises to help the poor and bring about “social justice,” one of the key demands of the uprising.
This time around, Sabahi has courted the youth vote and painted himself as the “revolutionary candidate,” again focusing on the poor and the need for social and economic justice. He also has said he would repeal a law that outlaws protests without a permit. On foreign policy, he calls for disengagement from Washington, including military aid, and a less-close relationship with Israel.
Unlike the front-runner, Sabahi has been very vocal about his leftist political platform. An 81-page document on his website details his campaign program.
While many see his candidacy as little more than a fig leaf to lend legitimacy to the military-backed el-Sissi, Sabahi’s team appears to be taking the competition seriously and his campaign buses have for the last three weeks zigzagged across the country.
Though Sabahi seems to agree that el-Sissi is a “people’s hero,” he says it is time for the military to return to the barracks.
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