By Amina Ismail
CAIRO (Reuters) - Some of the people who helped propel Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to power are calling for his replacement in an election next year, a sign of a shift in the still widespread view that he is a force for stability.
Although the former military commander has yet to declare he will run in the June election, only two people have aired the idea of challenging him and even they say Sisi is likely to win, aided by a crackdown on his opponents that is gathering pace.
But the criticism in recent months from several of Sisi's staunchest former allies of his handling of the economy, security and a territorial dispute is striking in a country where fear of turmoil is another factor stifling dissent.
"He must go," Hazim Abdelazim, a leading figure in Sisi's official 2014 presidential campaign, told Reuters. "He wasn't honest. He didn't respect the law or constitution. He has drowned the country in debt, and he had given up (our) land."
The presidency did not respond to a request for comment. Sisi's allies have dismissed accusations of rights abuses, saying his measures are needed for security in the face of an Islamist insurgency. Sisi says his government is working to put the economy back on track.
His decision last year to hand two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, which showered Egypt with billions of dollars of aid, was seen by many Egyptians as an affront to national sovereignty. The plan prompted rare protests and has since become mired in legal challenges.
Closer to home, the population is struggling with rampant inflation and persistent and deadly Islamist attacks which the government says justifies its jailing of political opponents and activists and closing of critical media.
In 2014, a year after he seized power during mass protests against Egypt's first freely elected president, Islamist Mohammed Mursi, Sisi won an election by a landslide, promising economic growth, stability and a crackdown on militants.
Most of Egypt's 92 million people are still wary of challenging the status quo after living through a pro-democracy revolt, a military takeover and a prolonged state of emergency.
Under Sisi's presidency, thousands of dissidents have been jailed, the government has shut down independent media and heavily restricted the conducting of polls.
A month after the pro-government Egyptian Center for Public Research, Baseera, said it had found a 14 percent drop in Sisi's popularity last year, the government warned citizens against participating in polls.
Abdelazim said he lost trust in Sisi gradually because of his failed economic promises and repressive policies which he says are worse than under former autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
But he said it was the decision to transfer the islands to Saudi Arabia that prompted him to denounce Sisi on Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based broadcaster critics call a mouthpiece for the Muslim Brotherhood, which Sisi's government replaced.
"I was fuming ... We are talking about losing land," said Abdelazim, who used to chair the youth committee in Sisi's campaign. "I have reservations against Al Jazeera, but Sisi didn't leave us even a pinhole to breathe through. I want people to listen. Where else will I speak?"
Nour al-Huda Zaki, a popular writer who was once one of the leading figures in Sisi's campaign, said the idea Egypt would lose the islands was like a slap in the face. "I felt that there was an insult to the oath that the president swore."
During the Muslim Brotherhood's year in power following Egypt's 2011 Arab Spring uprising, Mursi's government faced protests amid power cuts, fuel shortages and resistance from state institutions.
When Sisi, who is now 62, took office in 2013, a broad cross-section of the public admired the general in dark sunglasses with his eloquent speeches and promises of stability. Shops sold out of cakes decorated with his face.
Now, the challenges are mounting. Egypt is fighting an Islamic State insurgency in North Sinai that gained pace in 2013, killing hundreds of security forces. The group has turned its guns on Christians in the mainland, who were of the most vocal supporters of Sisi, killing around 100 since December.
Rights groups say security has been used as an excuse for a growing government push to muzzle critics. Since May 24, the government has blocked at least 122 news websites, according to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, a non-government organization tracking impacted websites.
The cost of living for most Egyptians has soared after years of political upheaval as well as a devaluation of the Egyptian pound, tax rises and subsidy cuts introduced by Sisi's government as part of an IMF loan deal.
Zaki was once a leading volunteer in Sisi's campaign. She traveled to most of Egypt provinces and promoted him on talk shows and at rallies, waving an Egyptian flag and chanting "God is great, Sisi is coming" as hundreds chanted back.
Now she sees Sisi as no different than Mubarak, who she protested against in the 2011 uprising. "The regime that we revolted against in January 2011, has returned," she said. "This regime's repressive tools are worse than Mubarak's."
Growing discontent does not necessarily mean a leadership change. The nephew of assassinated Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat, once an erstwhile Sisi supporter himself, says he is considering a run but knows he will not win.
Running for the presidency would give him a chance to air grievances, he told Reuters. "There is no other way but to ... stand amongst them to be able to talk and disagree."
Khaled Ali, 45, chief lawyer defending the case for keeping the islands and a former presidential candidate told Reuters in May that he is considering running against Sisi. But he is waiting to find out if he will go to prison.
The human rights and labor lawyer went on trial last month on public indecency charges, which he denies, punishable by up to two years in prison. If convicted he will be barred from running, even if he is only fined.
Some analysts say the change of heart by Sisi's erstwhile allies points to wider disillusionment, but see limited impact on Egypt's stability, a major concern to the United States and allies struggling to contain conflict in Syria, Yemen and Libya.
"A lack of popularity will always have some effect on stability," said Timothy Kaldas, non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. "But Mubarak was unpopular for well over a decade and stayed in power with little meaningful challenge until 2011."
(This story has been corrected to remove reference to Baseera as state-owned in paragraph 10-11)
(Reporting by Amina Ismail; Additional reporting by Ali Abdelaty; Editing by Patrick Markey and Philippa Fletcher)