By Nadine Awadalla and Eric Knecht
CAIRO (Reuters) - Six months into laying the groundwork for his presidential bid, Egyptian hopeful Mohamed Anwar Sadat hit a snag: he could not find a hotel prepared to hire him a space to launch his campaign.
"One said they were completely booked for a year ... another told us they got instructions from security agencies not to hold a conference for this person," said Osama Badie, his media coordinator for the campaign.
Printers refused to print Sadat's manifesto, Badie said. He declined to name the three major Cairo hotels that had turned down the campaign and did not identify five printing firms that had declined to do business with them.
Those challenging President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in an election to be held in March describe a sweeping effort to kill off their campaigns before they begin, with media attacks on candidates, intimidation of supporters, and a nomination process stacked in favor of the former general.
Egypt's electoral commission declined to immediately comment on opposition concerns. The government press office did not immediately respond to questions about the candidates' assertions when contacted by Reuters by telephone and in writing.
The electoral commission has pledged to run the vote "according to principles of independence, transparency and objectivity".
Sisi announced late on Friday that he would run for a second term as president. The election is Egypt's third since the 2011 uprising that deposed President Hosni Mubarak.
Campaigning was allowed to begin from Jan. 20, but opposition organizers say their efforts to get their campaigns off the ground are being stifled.
Citing safety concerns for his campaign team, Sadat, 62, whose uncle, President Anwar Sadat, was assassinated in 1981, abruptly dropped out of the race this week.
"It's a systematic campaign to kill off candidates. I call it a political assassination process," Badie told Reuters from Sadat's headquarters just after the withdrawal.
Former prime minister and air force commander Ahmed Shafik, seen as the most serious potential challenger to Sisi, also pulled out this month, saying he had spent too much time out of the country and was out of touch with Egyptian politics.
Shafik returned to Egypt from the United Arab Emirates in December after announcing his intention to run, and was met by widespread criticism from state-aligned media.
The 76-year-old narrowly lost a presidential election to Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Mursi in 2012 before fleeing for the United Arab Emirates, where he had since lived.
"Even the limited margins of opposition and critique and freedoms that were allowed under Mubarak are not allowed right now. It's zero tolerance, 100 percent control," said Ashraf El Sherif, political science professor at the American University in Cairo, citing what he said was a crackdown on grassroots activists.
Formally announcing his own candidacy as expected on Saturday morning, former armed forces chief of staff General Sami Anan called on all civilian and military institutions to maintain neutrality in the election.
'THE REAL FIGHT'
Sisi, a former military commander, won a landslide election victory in 2014, a year after he led the overthrow of Mursi, Egypt's first freely-elected president.
Sisi's potential challengers say the fiercest fight now is getting on the ballot.
Election regulations stipulate that would-be candidates must obtain the backing of at least 20 members of parliament or be supported by at least 25,000 eligible voters in at least 15 governorates through pledges of support submitted at notary offices.
Lawmakers have so far only provided nomination pledges for Sisi. His rivals have had to dash across the country to drum up pledges before the nomination window closes on Jan. 29.
Khaled Ali, a human rights lawyer and presidential hopeful, said the process of collecting pledges has been marred by fraud.
Ali's campaign organizers say payments are being made for Sisi pledges while their supporters face intimidation when they try to submit their own. The organizers say plainclothes security officers present at the notary offices were asking people if they supported Sisi.
"The fight to gather nomination pledges is the real fight in these elections," Ali said on Wednesday.
A Reuters reporter visiting three notary offices in Cairo witnessed about 10 Egyptian voters discussing when they would receive payments they had been promised in return for supporting Sisi and how much they would be paid.
Ali's campaign organizers said payments were being made by companies and individuals supporting Sisi, but Reuters was unable to determine where the payments ultimately came from.
The campaign for Sami Anan told Reuters that many of their pledges were going unprocessed.
"The employees of these (notary) offices are saying that Anan's name is not listed on the system in the office and they need instructions on how to process his nomination pledges," said Sami Balah, the secretary general of a party nominating Anan.
Balah did not identify the notary offices. The electoral commission declined to comment on his assertion about the offices, whose employees are not authorized to speak to the media.
(This version of the story refiles to change tense in para eight)
(Additional reporting by Mahmoud Mourad, Amina Ismail and Omar Fahmy; Editing by John Davison, Giles Elgood and Sonya Hepinstall)