CAIRO (AP) — Barely a week after authorities set a date for Egypt's presidential elections, two hopefuls have launched their campaigns with criticism of general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's rule, with one promising to end "repression" if elected and the other claiming the incumbent is establishing a dictatorship.
El-Sissi has yet to formally announce whether he will run in the March 26-28 election, but he is virtually certain to contest and win another four-year term in office. He said in October he would decide after he sees voters' feedback on his track record over the past four years.
On Sunday, he announced on his Twitter account a conference to be held later this week in which "we will together review the journey of success." He was alluding to last week's announcement by his office that he would field questions from among those submitted by Egyptians online.
Neither of the two presidential hopefuls — prominent rights lawyer Khaled Ali and former lawmaker Mohammed Anwar Sadat — pose a serious challenge to el-Sissi's chances of re-election, but both appear willing to take advantage of the opportunity to air scathing criticism of his rule during an election season.
Sadat, nephew of Egypt's late leader Anwar Sadat, has posted a promotional video on social media networks in which he touts himself as capable of restoring "people's rule" and bringing an end to "corruption" and "oppression."
"They say Egypt is a quasi-state and that we are very, very poor," Sadat said in a voiceover, referring to two el-Sissi phrases that have been widely criticized as too harsh. "It's time we said enough to corruption, to oppression and misrepresentation. People can if given a chance," he said.
Thrown out of parliament last year amid allegations he leaked official documents to foreign diplomats, Sadat went on to outline what he intends to do if elected, which apparently includes reforming domestic and foreign policies, but he offered no specifics or how he would finance those measures.
Criticism of el-Sisi by Ali, the rights lawyer, was more direct and focused on the difficulties of running against an incumbent who commands vast resources, from a loyal media to state institutions.
He bemoaned that he was entering a race "knowing that those who rule this nation cannot accommodate integrity ... Yes, we have taken on a battle that some see as impossible to win, not because of the strength of our rival, but because of the injustices in the conditions of the competition, its circumstances and context."
"We chose this path so that no one comes one day and says 'where was this generation when they were building a dictatorship?'" he told reporters Thursday.
Besides Ali and Sadat, the lineup of hopefuls include Egypt's former chief of staff, Sami Annan, who on Thursday posted on his Facebook account that his party has nominated him to run. Two former generals — him and el-Sissi — could therefore now potentially run against each other. Such a contest could undermine the appearance of a united front for a proud military establishment which has produced all but two of the country's presidents since the early 1950s.
But it' still early days before it is known whether any of the candidates will be eligible to run.
Under the constitution, any would-be candidate must gather formal "recommendations" from at least 20 elected members of parliament, or alternatively 25,000 recommendations from voters, with a minimum of 1,000 each from 15 of Egypt's 29 provinces.
Most lawmakers have already recommended el-Sissi, who has led a heavy crackdown since 2013 that has jailed thousands of opponents, mainly Islamists but also secular activists, including many of those involved in the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Under his rule, street protests are banned, human rights groups have been placed under severe restrictions and several rights campaigners have been banned from foreign travel or had their assets frozen. Many critics in the media have been silenced. He has also been trying to revive the battered economy and brought a level of security to the streets not seen since the 2011 uprising.