CAIRO (AP) — A prominent rights lawyer will run for president in next year's elections, three senior politicians said Saturday. The move is unlikely to seriously challenge the incumbent general-turned-president's campaign but will test his popularity at a time of deep economic hardships and a continuing crackdown on dissent.
The politicians said Khaled Ali, who unsuccessfully ran for president in 2012, will announce his candidacy in a Monday news conference in which he will also outline his policies. Ali declined a request for comment by The Associated Press ahead of the Monday conference.
However, the politicians — close to Ali and directly involved in months-long talks between him and leaders of secular parties on fielding a joint candidate — were in no doubt that he has decided to run.
"It's a done deal. He is running," one of the three politicians told the AP. "Other leaders welcomed his candidacy, but the decision of whether to support him has yet to be made."
The politicians spoke on condition of anonymity because Ali has not yet made an official announcement.
Ali has been a key figure among the small but vibrant core of mostly young pro-democracy and secular activists known loosely as "the revolutionaries." They were the main force behind the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Briefly celebrated after Mubarak's fall, they failed to forge a cohesive political force.
Ali was little noticed outside his leftist circles when he ran for president in 2012. With a legal suit he and other lawyers led last year, Ali succeeded in blocking the government's plans to hand over two strategic Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. The ruling, upheld on appeal in January, gave Ali some celebrity as a defender of the country's territorial integrity among the many who opposed the handover.
However, parliament, a 596-seat chamber packed with el-Sissi supporters, hurriedly approved the agreement in June and the president ratified it soon afterward. Ali has vowed not to give up the fight to restore Egypt's ownership of Tiran and Sanafir islands at the mouth of the Red Sea's Gulf of Aqaba.
Hanging over Ali's presidential run is a September conviction and a suspended three-month jail sentence for allegedly making an obscene hand gesture the day he won the court case over the islands in January. He has appealed the conviction and a higher court would hold its first hearing on the case Nov. 8.
If his conviction of alleged indecency — widely seen to be politically motivated — is upheld, he could be disqualified from running.
If he runs, Ali can expect a brutal campaign of slander and intimidation by the pro-government media. One of the three politicians who spoke to the AP on Saturday, said his campaign's effort to secure a suitable Cairo venue for Monday's news conference proved suspiciously difficult because of intimidation by security agencies loyal to el-Sissi.
It's scheduled to be held at the headquarters of an opposition party, al-Destour.
El-Sissi, who led the military's 2013 ouster of a freely elected but divisive Islamist president, has yet to formally announce he will run for another four-year term, although his candidacy is a virtual foregone conclusion and he is almost assured of winning.
Already, el-Sissi supporters are collecting signatures on petitions urging him to run for a second term. Organizers last week said they have more than 3 million signatures thus far.
In the three years since coming to office, el-Sissi has overseen one of the harshest and largest crackdowns on dissent, jailing thousands of Islamists as well as secular pro-democracy activists. His government has rolled back almost all freedoms won in the 2011 uprising and slapped draconian restrictions on civil society groups and silenced most critical voices in the media while police and security agencies operate with impunity.
El-Sissi insists that Egypt's human rights should not be judged by Western standards and boasts that he is tirelessly working on building a "civilian and democratic" state while fighting a tenacious insurgency by Islamic militants and struggling to overhaul an economy battered by years of turmoil and misguided policies.
While desperately needed, his economic reform policies — chiefly floating the currency, reducing subsidies on fuel and hiking utility bills — have sent inflation soaring, exacerbating for most Egyptians what was an already difficult task in making ends meet.
Associated Press writer Samy Magdy contributed to this report.