By Ahmed Aboulenein
CAIRO (Reuters) - Conditions are so dire in President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's Egypt that anyone could beat him in next year's presidential election if the vote is held fairly, the highest-profile potential challenger told Reuters.
Khaled Ali, 45, has not formally announced if he will oppose the general-turned-president in 2018 but has indicated he intends to. He is waiting to find out if he will go to prison.
The human rights and labor lawyer went on trial last week on public indecency charges that carry up to two years in prison. If convicted, even with a fine, he will be barred from running.
"If we had fair elections, anyone could defeat Sisi," Ali said in a Reuters interview.
Worsening economic conditions, deteriorating security and a crackdown on political freedoms all mean Sisi is losing popularity, he said.
Sisi came to power in 2014, a year after he led the military in ousting elected but unpopular Islamist President Mohamed Mursi. He is expected to run again in 2018.
Ali says he's prepared to address the country's issues but thinks it is unlikely security forces will allow his potential candidacy a fair shot.
"Society needs to have an experience of resistance. If we keep not resisting, they will stay in control," he said.
Ali gained prominence in January when he won a case that nullified a government transfer of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, a deal that had prompted mass protests.
He sees the case as having swayed the opinion of many once stalwart Sisi supporters, who oppose ceding sovereign territory.
"Sisi came to power on the basis that he is the army strong-man who will protect the country and he is giving up land Egypt went to war with Israel for," he said.
The socialist ran for president in 2012 and came seventh. He was the youngest candidate, having turned 40, the minimum age required to run.
He now leads the leftwing Bread and Freedom Party, eight of whose members have been arrested since April on charges including "misusing social media to incite against the state" and insulting the president.
Ali believes the arrests and case against him - which alleges he made an obscene hand gesture on the steps of a Cairo courthouse after winning the islands case - are punishment for his work on that case and his intention to challenge Sisi.
"The regime is trying to make even caring about politics scary. They are trying to make it come with a high price."
(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Giles Elgood and Tom Heneghan)