A popular Egyptian dissident leader under ousted president Mohamed Morsi said Saturday he will stand in upcoming elections, in a contest likely to pit him against army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Although the widely popular Sisi has yet to announce his candidacy, the field marshal is expected to contest and win presidential elections slated for mid-April.
But the announcement on Saturday by socialist activist Hamdeen Sabbahi signals growing concern among some Egyptians over a return to military rule if Sisi wins the vote.
Sabbahi came third in the 2012 elections won by Morsi, who was toppled by Sisi in July last year after a turbulent year in power. Some of the other candidates who ran in that election have said they would support Sisi if he nominates himself.
In a speech to his supporters broadcast live on television, Sabbahi announced his nomination to chants of “our vote is for Sabbahi.”
He denounced both Morsi and former president Hosni Mubarak, who was overthrown in a 2011 uprising and whose regime critics say is being resurrected by the military-installed government.
“We will wage a clear battle,” Sabbahi said. “I hope my decision has pleased the youths and respected their demands.”
If he runs, Sisi would enjoy the broad support of politicians and parties that view him as a sure bet and the man best suited to restoring order in the country.
But Sabbahi’s candidacy, the most serious competition Sisi is likely to face, may attract the support of a small but growing dissident opposition movement.
Sabbahi was a leader of the National Salvation Front that organised protests under Morsi.
Morsi’s Islamist supporters are likely to boycott the vote and have previously said they would shun polls held by the military-installed government.
And the now mostly defunct National Salvation Front Sabbahi led has been split between those who support Sisi and others who believe a candidate like Sabbahi is needed.
“Whether people coalesce (around Sabbahi) will depend on how people engage with the boycott,” said Michael Hanna, an Egypt expert with US-based think tank The Century Foundation.
“It depends on whether they think it’s better to go and cast a vote of disapproval for Sabbahi, or whether this holier-than-thou attitude continues,” he said of calls for a boycott of the election.
Sabbahi was a leading dissident against Mubarak, who ruled for three decades.
Sisi and the interim president he appointed after overthrowing Morsi have both pledged there would be no return to Mubarak-era practices, in which thousands of political prisoners were detained and freedom of speech was stifled.
Since Morsi’s overthrow, more than 1,400 people have been killed in street clashes in a crackdown on Islamists, and thousands imprisoned.
Following a perceived low turnout among youths in a constitutional referendum last month, the government has started to reach out to youth activists.
But some of the most prominent leaders of youth groups that spearheaded protests against both Mubarak and Morsi are now in jail.
Three of them were sentenced to three years in prison in December for participating in an unlicenced protest.