CAIRO (Reuters) - To Hisham Genena, the assault appeared well-timed. Egypt's former anti-graft chief was on his way to appeal against the disqualification of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's strongest potential challenger in an upcoming presidential vote.
En route, armed men stopped Genena's car and beat him up, he recalled, putting him in hospital and incapacitating him as the deadline passed to lodge the appeal on behalf of Sami Anan, an ex-military chief of staff hoping to run for president.
Anan was detained by authorities last month, a week after announcing his candidacy, and the army said he had broken the law by running for office without its permission while still a reserve officer.
Political analysts said he was the last serious challenger to Sisi. His campaign, in which Genena was a leading figure, was hoping to contest the decision by the electoral commission to disqualify him. The attack on Genena ended those hopes.
Speaking out for the first time since he left a Cairo hospital last week, Genena said Egyptian authorities were behind his assault. He did not give evidence of government involvement and Reuters was not immediately able to confirm this independently.
Genena said tactics to stifle opposition to Sisi had become more vicious than under former leader Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in 2011.
"Under Mubarak, it never used to happen with this sort of severity and bloodiness," he said at his suburban Cairo home, still nursing a fractured cheekbone and injured eye.
"They don't want the voices of any opponents."
The assault on Genena came after several candidates had withdrawn from the race, with some citing intimidation of their supporters and other tactics they said were designed to give Sisi an easy win in the March vote.
The Interior Ministry did not immediately respond to calls and written requests for a response to Genena's allegation that the authorities were behind the assault, and to accusations of the government not giving space to opposition voices, or putting pressure on other electoral candidates.
Sisi's office referred questions to the electoral commission.
The electoral commission, responding to the same questions, said it did not prevent anyone from "practising their legal and constitutional rights" to register as a candidate, or appeal a decision to disqualify a candidate, and has said it will ensure the vote is fair and transparent.
Sisi faces a single opponent in the election who has said he supports the president.
In a speech announcing his candidacy last month, Sisi said: "I promise you that the next presidential elections will be a model for freedom and transparency, and that there will be an equal opportunity for all candidates."
The former general was elected in 2014, a year after leading the army to oust Islamist President Mohamed Mursi. He is seeking a second term.
The public prosecutor last week released on bail the three alleged assailants pending an investigation. According to a statement from the prosecutor, the men said Genena's injuries were the result of a fight between both parties after his car hit theirs. Genena denies this.
Genena said that in the days before his attack he was discussing by phone the details of a legal challenge he was planning. He believes his phone was tapped.
"I told the lawyers to meet me in front of the election commission and head with me to the state council to file a complaint before the administrative court to challenge Anan's exclusion from the list of candidates," said Genena.
Sisi's office and the interior ministry did not immediately respond to written questions about the alleged phone tapping.
Genena said a car parked outside his home had moved to follow his car and cut it off 300 meters (yards) from the house on Jan. 27.
Armed men tried to pull him from his car and bludgeoned him in the face and legs until bystanders intervened, he said.
Genena spent two days in intensive care and has been recovering at home since. On Jan. 31, the window for candidates to appeal against not being able to register closed.
The assault sent shockwaves through opposition and rights groups.
"What happened to Hesham Genena is simply a signal as to the way they'll deal with the opposition and that it has reached the level of thuggery," said Khaled al-Balshi, a spokesman for Khaled Ali, an opposition candidate who withdrew last month.
Outside his hospital room on the day of the attack, disparate opposition figures who would not normally associate with each other gathered to express sympathy and outrage.
The visitors included prominent Islamist Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, and Mohamed Anwar Sadat, who had just halted his own presidential bid, as well as several youth activists and Hamdeen Sabbahi, a presidential contender in two previous elections.
A day later several of these high-profile Egyptians, citing the attack, began calling for a boycott of the vote, which they said had been invalidated by a wave of intimidation that had peaked with the assault on Genena.
The call for a boycott has been joined by a movement that includes 150 politicians and activists.