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CAIRO – By far the underdog in Egypt's presidential elections, candidate Hamdeen Sabahi, is trying to rally youth behind him as the hope for the country's pro-democracy "revolution" in his race against the former military chief, who some fear will bring back an autocratic rule.
But the deck is heavily stacked against the 59-year-old leftist politician.
His opponent, retired field marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sssi, has a tidal wave of support behind him in a country gripped by jingoistic fervor and adulation for the military after his ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi last summer. TV stations and newspapers are deeply in favor of el-Sissi, treating him with presidential reverence.
El-Sissi posters are everywhere in the streets, while Sabahi's are rarely seen.
Sabahi's strategy is to try to overcome widespread calls for a boycott of the vote by young activists who dismiss the May 26-27 election as a farce. Some among the revolutionary activist groups that led the 2011 mass uprising against autocrat Hosni Mubarak are skeptical of Sabahi. But others have rallied to him, arguing that at the least, if he wins enough votes, it will dent el-Sissi and show there is a public undercurrent against him.
"Let's test our strength," Sabahi said recently, appealing to young Egyptians not to boycott. "If the youth are convinced that this is their battle, they will win it."
According to official estimates, around 37 million of Egypt's 53 million voters are between the age of 18-40.
A key activist group in the 2011 uprising, the left-wing Revolutionary Socialists, has spoken out against a boycott and urged a Sabahi vote, saying it would "diminish el-Sissi's legitimacy as a leader and president."
A "decent" showing by Sabahi would constitute "a very small step forward in the revolution's battle in defense of its soul ... and perhaps a starting point for a strong opposition to his rule," it said.
Best-selling novelist and prominent activist Alaa al-Aswany said a boycott would be a blow to the revolution, writing Tuesday that it usually "turns into a weapon that hurts the boycotters themselves."
Also largely boycotting the vote are Islamists, who deeply despise el-Sissi because of his removal of Morsi and the ensuing, bloody crackdown on Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood. Far from trying to appeal to them, Sabahi has sought to build his security credentials by vowing to maintain the ban on the Brotherhood and fight Islamic militants.
Confident in victory — and faced with security concerns — el-Sissi has not made a single street appearance in his campaign. Instead, he has relied on interviews with sympathetic media and arranged meetings with various constituencies, from wealthy businessmen and tribal leaders to media celebrities and entertainment icons. El-Sissi backers — including many businessmen and prominent figures from the Mubarak era — have organized their own opulent public rallies.
In contrast, Sabahi has hit the campaign trail hard, crisscrossing the country in a campaign that shows its low budget.
In Cairo recently, 25 volunteers simply flew kites bearing Sabahi's image over a landmark bridge over the Nile.
"We got some interest from passers-by, spoke to some of them and allowed children have a go flying the kites," said one volunteer, Alaa Nabil, a 23-year-old business student who wore a T-shirt declaring "We will realize our dream."
"A boycott stands between us and victory, and we all spend hours every day trying to persuade young voters to vote," he said.
Sabahi has campaigned as the man who can ensure democracy and justice, promising to prosecute corrupt members of Mubarak's regime and anyone who took part in the killing of unarmed protesters since 2011. He has often pointed out the prevalence of many prominent Mubarak-era figures among el-Sissi's backers, highlighting concerns that the old regime's authoritarianism will be revived if el-Sissi wins.
Sabahi, involved in politics since his university days in the 1970s, was a lawmaker for 10 years, marketing himself as a populist nationalist in the vein of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the iconic leader of the 1950s and 1960s.
In 2012 presidential elections, Sabahi made a surprisingly strong third-place showing, garnering nearly 5 million votes. His performance was largely built on his image as the "revolutionary alternative" to the top two finishers — Mubarak's last prime minister Ahmed Shafiq and the Brotherhood's Morsi, who eventually won.
He fared best in Egypt's two largest cities — the capital Cairo and the Mediterranean city of Alexandria — reflecting his appeal among urban and educated classes.
But much has changed since. El-Sissi has support among urban educated voters who staunchly oppose the Islamists and believe the field marshal can finally bring order.
Prominent rights lawyer Gamal Eid, also a participant in the 2011 revolution, had intended to boycott the vote, but recently decided to back Sabahi.
"Hamdeen belongs to the revolution, with all its pros and cons. Voting for him may be the last chance to save the revolution from those who are trying to recreate the Mubarak regime," he said.
Khaled Abdel-Hameed, an icon of the 2011 revolution, also dropped boycott thoughts and decided to vote for Sabahi, despite what he called his "weak to zero" chances.
"I have no illusions about him, but he is the symbol of our rejection of the other candidate."