CAIRO (AP) — A rights lawyer who hopes to run in Egypt's presidential election in March said Wednesday that bureaucrats loyal to the government were obstructing efforts to get him on the ballot, while his campaign officials said police and government supporters were intimidating potential voters.
The complaints, aired at a news conference held at Khaled Ali's campaign headquarters in downtown Cairo, suggested that he was struggling to secure the 25,000 signatures, or "recommendations," necessary to challenge President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who is widely expected to run for and win a second four-year term.
Alternatively, a presidential hopeful could secure the formal backing of 20 elected lawmakers. But the overwhelming majority of the chamber's 596 members already have pledged their support to el-Sissi, who has yet to formally announce his candidacy.
"The battle for the recommendations is the real battle in this election. Either we win together or I fail alone." Ali told reporters.
Ali has until Jan. 29 to submit the certified signatures. He said he wanted to submit them on Jan. 25, the seventh anniversary of the popular uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. El-Sissi's supporters portray the uprising as a foreign conspiracy aimed at destabilizing the country.
Malek Adly, a rights lawyer and another January "revolutionary" from Ali's campaign, told the news conference that supporters were "taking a risk" by visiting government offices to certify their signatures. He also criticized the personal attacks waged against Ali by pro-government talk show hosts.
"The legal team will start legal proceedings against every one of them," he pledged. He said the campaign also complained about the thousands of street billboards in support of el-Sissi, saying they violate the timeline laid out by the election commission. Campaigning is supposed to begin Feb. 24 and last for under four weeks.
The vote will be held March 27-28 with runoffs, if needed, the following month.
Ali said government workers dragged their feet when his supporters asked for their signatures to be certified.
"We are fully aware of the difficulties and dangers involved in the battle to defend politics and win back public space," he said. "This is the battle to regain our self-confidence and our ability to work together."
Several campaign officials who spoke to The Associated Press said Ali supporters were intimidated and threatened by undercover policemen and el-Sissi supporters crowding the government offices. They expressed fears that the process of gathering and certifying signatures would allow authorities to target supporters after the vote.
They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss confidential deliberations.
Since el-Sissi led the military overthrow of an elected Islamist president in 2013, authorities have arrested thousands of people, mainly Islamists but also several prominent secular activists, including many who were behind the 2011 uprising. Street protests have been effectively banned, human rights groups placed under severe restrictions and many critics in the media have been silenced.
El-Sissi has said such measures are necessary to restore stability and rebuild the economy after years of unrest, and to combat an Islamic State-led insurgency.
Ali shot to national fame when he won a court case that annulled Egypt's transfer of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. The government went ahead anyway with the transfer after the agreement was hurriedly ratified by parliament.
He was convicted and sentenced to three months in prison in September for allegedly making an obscene gesture while celebrating the court's ruling in January 2016. He is appealing the verdict, but if his conviction is upheld he would not be eligible to run.
Another hopeful, former Egyptian lawmaker Mohammed Anwar Sadat, said this week he won't run, arguing that the political "climate" was not conducive to campaigning. The nephew of Egypt's late leader Anwar Sadat told reporters Monday that his decision was partially taken to protect his campaign workers from intimidation or arrest.
Last week, former prime minister and air force general Ahmed Shafiq also pulled out of the race, saying he was not the "ideal" person to lead the country at this stage. His decision followed a flood of harsh criticism, some personal, by the pro-government media. Shafiq, who finished second in the 2012 elections, could have potentially lit up the race.
The withdrawals have led many to wonder whether el-Sissi would end up as the only name on the ballot. For decades, Egypt's presidents were elected in rigged, one-name referendums.
El-Sissi has urged Egyptians to come out and vote, suggesting he is looking for a high turnout that would lend credibility and legitimacy to his widely expected win. That the vote is staggered over three days appears designed to serve that objective.
Associated Press writer Samy Magdy contributed to this report.