CAIRO (AP) — A little-known Egyptian politician who is a staunch supporter of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi submitted his candidacy documents to the election commission on Monday, becoming a last-minute challenger to the incumbent.
El-Sissi is virtually certain of winning a second, four-year term in the March 26-28 vote. But after a string of would-be challengers were arrested, forced out or quit the race, the prospect of a one-candidate election has proven embarrassing for the government.
Pro-government media and public figures loyal to el-Sissi had pressured one of Egypt's oldest political parties, the Wafd, to field a candidate. But after two days of marathon deliberations, the party decided Saturday not to field a candidate and instead to renew its support for a second term for the president.
El-Sissi's campaign said the president should not be blamed for the withdrawal of candidates or the reluctance of others to enter the race.
"The presidential hopeful (el-Sissi) is not responsible for the reluctance of politicians to effectively participate in politics," campaign spokesman Mohammed Abu Shaqah told a news conference on Monday. He also said el-Sissi should not be blamed for the failure of would-be candidates to secure one of the key constitutional requirements to run: Support of 20 elected lawmakers or "recommendations" from 25,000 voters.
Moussa Mustafa Moussa of the Ghad, or Tomorrow, party, was the subject of intense speculation over the weekend, with many predicting he would step forward as a face-saving candidate. On Monday, one of his top aides submitted documents to the election commission on his behalf.
Monday at 2 p.m. (1200 GMT) was the deadline for submitting candidacy documents.
Moussa, whose party does not have a single member in parliament, insisted his candidacy was serious. He argued that his party, which supports el-Sissi, had long prepared to field a challenger, but changed its mind when former prime minister and air force general Ahmed Shafiq said he would run.
Addressing a news conference Monday at the party's headquarters in downtown Cairo, Moussa said Shafiq's withdrawal from the race changed that.
"A very large question mark loomed over the whole affair," he said, alluding to the absence of challengers. "But we are not running as a courtesy to anyone and we don't expect anyone to do us any favors. We are in this for a real competition."
Besides Shafiq, would-be challengers who are no longer in the race include a former military chief of staff, a prominent rights lawyer and a former lawmaker. They were unlikely to win the race, but their participation would have attracted protest votes against el-Sissi, including from Egyptians hit hard by the president's austerity measures and other economic reforms.
A previous leader of the Ghad Party, Ayman Nour, ran against Egypt's long-ruling President Hosni Mubarak in 2005, in the country's first multi-candidate election. Nour lost by a huge margin amid widespread allegations of vote-rigging and was jailed in December of that year.
Nour had fired Moussa before he was jailed, but Moussa returned and defeated him in a leadership battle in 2011, the same year Mubarak was overthrown in a popular uprising. Nour is now a harsh critic of el-Sissi's rule and lives in exile abroad.
El-Sissi led the 2013 ouster of a freely elected but divisive president, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi, and has since overseen what is perhaps the largest crackdown on dissent in the country's living memory. Thousands of Morsi supporters have been jailed, along with secular activists. Most critics in the media have been silenced, human rights groups have been heavily restricted and scores of online news sites have been blocked.
Five opposition figures, including a 2012 presidential candidate and two top campaign aides for now-arrested presidential hopeful Sami Annan, called for a boycott of the vote, saying it has lost all credibility.
In a statement Sunday, they also called on Egyptians not to recognize the presidential vote's outcome if it goes ahead.
The statement was a bold move that could be perceived as an attempt to derail the electoral process by authorities that have shown little tolerance for dissent. It is also likely to encourage more expressions of discontent over what critics see as the president's increasingly authoritarian traits.
Earlier on Monday, prosecutors said they have detained three men over the assault on the country's former top auditor, Hesham Genena. Sacked by el-Sissi after alleging widespread corruption, Genena had come out in support of Anan, a former military chief of staff who was seen as a potentially strong challenger before his arrest. The prosecutors said the suspects were ordered detained for four days, pending investigation. They face charges of armed robbery.
Annan was arrested by the military last Tuesday on several charges, including incitement against the armed forces and forgery.