CAIRO – A leading left-wing Egyptian politician announced on Saturday that he will contest upcoming presidential elections, set to be a tough battle for anyone squaring off against the country’s powerful army chief, expected to win a sweeping victory.
Hamdeen Sabahi’s decision heats up an election slated for this spring, and opens a window of hope to the country’s largely disenchanted youth who rose up against two presidents in the past three years – first against longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, then the Islamist Mohammed Morsi.
“I have taken this personal decision to enter the presidential battle,” Sabahi roared among his supporters. “The revolution must reach power democratically and stand as one line against terrorism.”
Sabahi, who finished an impressive third in the June 2012 presidential election, appeals to a range of liberal, leftist and secular-minded Egyptians who reject both military and Islamist rule. He is seen as a political rookie, however.
The announcement comes as a nationalist fervor grips the country, largely in support of Defense Minister Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi. Critics of the military face strong intimidation.
El-Sissi led the military coup that deposed Morsi last July after millions marched to demand his resignation. He has yet to publicly declare his intentions but the military has backed him.
In previous TV appearances, Sabahi said he was holding off on his decision until el-Sissi decided whether he would run. But Saturday he said he would be a candidate in response to demands from the youth.
Sabahi, founder of Popular Current group, was an opposition leader under Morsi. A journalist and sometimes actor, he has sent assuring messages to the military and el-Sissi supporters while disassociating himself from Morsi supporters and Mubarak loyalists.
“There will be no tolerance to a corrupt regime and its symbols, not to Mubarak and not with the repressive regime of Morsi and his group,” he said.
During the 2012 campaign, Sabahi saw a last-minute surge in popularity after campaigning on promises to help the poor that harkened back to the nationalist, socialist ideology of Gamel Abdel-Nasser, Egypt’s president from 1956 to 1970.
The bid comes amid a military-led offensive against Islamic militants in the Sinai Peninsula and continued clashes between police and Morsi supporters, who hold scattered demonstrations that frequently deteriorate into violence.
On Saturday, Egypt’s military said it had killed 16 suspected Islamic militants in a series of airstrikes on hideouts in the northern Sinai Peninsula a day earlier. Military spokesman Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali also alleged that the fighters had ties to Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.
The military has been waging a wide offensive against militant groups in Sinai, where they have solidified their position since the country’s 2011 uprising.
Militancy has spread to central Cairo and Nile Delta cities over the past months in retaliation for Morsi’s ouster.
Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali said on his official Facebook page that the airstrikes targeted hideouts of “terrorist, extremely dangerous takfiri” militants late Friday in the eastern border town of Sheikh Zuweyid. Takfiri is an Arabic term referring to Islamic radicals.
He described the targeted militants as affiliated with the “terrorist” Brotherhood group. The group denies links to terrorism but the military-backed government has branded it a terrorist organization, amid wave of heavy-handed crackdown on its leadership, members and supporters. Hundreds have been killed and thousands are in detention mostly over crimes of inciting violence. On Saturday, Egypt’s Health Ministry said that three people were killed in clashes with police during Friday rallies.
The Friday airstrikes were the fourth with such a high death toll, and are part of a stepped-up operation since militants shot down a military helicopter in a nearby area on Jan. 24. Friday’s deaths bring the total number of militants killed since then to nearly 60.
Ali also said that the military also foiled attempt to blow up two troop carriers using roadside bombs on Saturday.
Most of the major attacks have been claimed by a Sinai-based, al-Qaida-inspired militant group called Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, or Champions of Jerusalem. But recently a new organization, Ajnad Misr – Arabic for Egypt’s Soldiers – has also tried to establish a presence.
In a statement posted on a jihadi website late Friday, Ajnad Misr said it had carried out a double bombing on an Egyptian police checkpoint near Cairo that wounded six people. It vowed to continue its attacks on policemen, urging them to defect and repent.
The authenticity of the statement could not be verified, but it was posted on an al-Qaida-affiliated website frequently used for militant claims.
Meanwhile, Morsi’s predecessor Hosni Mubarak had a sudden health scare and high blood pressure when he returned to trial in connection with the killings of protesters during the 2011 uprising.
Mubarak is being retried over charges of failing to stop the killings of protesters after his earlier life-imprisonment sentence was canceled on appeal. The trial, which has lasted more than two years, comes at a time his successor Morsi faces several trials of his own, including one for allegedly inciting the murder of protesters.
AP Reporters Maamoun Youssef and Mariam Rizk contributed to this report from Cairo.