CAIRO, Egypt (AFP) — A rights lawyer seen as the last real challenger to Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sissi on Wednesday quit the race to be president, the latest in a string of potential candidates to withdraw or be jailed.
Sissi, who has ruled the North African country with an iron fist since being elected in 2014, earlier in the day became the only candidate so far to formally submit his bid to stand in the election.
Since December, one by one, all of his other likely challengers have either ruled themselves out of the race or been sentenced to time in prison.
On Wednesday, it was the turn of Khaled Ali, a leftist human rights lawyer who was seen as the strongest candidate still standing against Sissi following the elimination of two others.
“Today we announce our decision that we will not run in this race,” Ali said at a news conference in Cairo.
A presidential candidate in 2012, the 45-year-old Ali said he had been forced to pull out of this year’s election, to be held on March 26-28.
There were, he said, “signs that pointed to a will to poison the whole operation and to corrupt and empty it of its supposedly democratic content.”
They included the arrest of some of his campaign activists, a tight schedule that made it difficult for potential candidates to gather the needed endorsements for their applications, and a generally unfair climate.
Ali had yet to submit his candidacy for the election.
As a lawyer, Ali has handled high-profile cases, including one where he tried to get the courts to stop the transfer of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, a move Sissi completed, despite rare street protests after the agreement was signed in 2016.
From the start, “our announcement was met with an angry and irresponsible reaction, manifested in the arrest of a large number of the campaign’s youth,” he said.
The arrests had started a few months “before we officially announced our intent to run… with some referred to urgent trials,” said Ali, who had announced his intention to run in the race in November.
The short timetable meant it was difficult for candidates to gather the necessary endorsements ahead of Monday’s deadline, he said.
The National Election Authority announced on January 8 that the deadline for applications would be January 29.
Presidential hopefuls must collect endorsements from at least 20 lawmakers, or at least 25,000 registered voters, with a minimum of 1,000 signatures from each of at least 15 provinces, according to Egyptian law.
Ali also cited a case filed against him, where he was sentenced in September, in absentia, to three months in jail, on accusations of “offending public decency,” a ruling he appealed.
This was in relation to a photograph that appeared to show Ali making an obscene gesture, while celebrating a court ruling in the case of the islands’ transfer to Saudi Arabia. Ali alleges the picture was fabricated.
The case was pursued “for nothing, except to provide a legal excuse that would prevent us from running,” he said.
Ali also said the elections authority “ignored the larger part of our complaints, especially related to the continuation of electoral campaigning for the current president in the streets and squares.”
Sissi, who was elected president a year after heading the 2013 military ouster of Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi, on Wednesday officially submitted his application to run for a second four-year term.
The list of those hoping to challenge him has been whittled away — by people either ruling themselves out or being sentenced to prison terms, over the past few weeks.
On Tuesday, a bid by General Sami Anan was plunged into doubt, after the armed forces accused him on state television of “infractions and crimes” that require investigation.
The authorities issued a gag order on the details of his case, which is being handled by military judiciary.
Other top challengers to drop out include Ahmed Shafiq, a prime minister under former long-serving president Hosni Mubarak, and Mohamed Anwar Sadat, a dissident and nephew of the former president of the same name.
Shafiq reversed a pledge to run after he was returned to Egypt from exile in the United Arab Emirates, while Sadat said the climate was not right for free elections.
Last month, a military court sentenced Colonel Ahmed Konsowa to six years in jail, after he announced his intention to stand.
The only remaining well-known potential candidate is now Mortada Mansour, the head of Egypt’s legendary Zamalek football club.