CAIRO — Campaigning began in Egypt's presidential elections this weekend, a contest pitting a little-known, face-saving candidate against the incumbent, general-turned-president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who is virtually certain to win.
Set for almost a month, campaigning ends on March 23 and the vote is staggered over three days — March 26-28 — apparently to secure a decent turnout for an election whose result most agree is a foregone conclusion and accord it some measure of respectability.
Moussa Mustafa Moussa, chairman of the small secular Al-Ghad party, is an ardent el-Sissi supporter and entered the race at the eleventh hour to save the president and his government the embarrassment of a one-candidate vote. A string of potentially serious challengers, including a former prime minister and military chief of staff, have been arrested or intimidated out of the race.
Hundreds of billboard advertisements in support of the incumbent have over the weekend sprung up alongside existing ones on the streets of Cairo, almost all bearing the image of a smiling el-Sissi, with slogans focusing on the economy and security.
"With you, we will export more and import less," declares one billboard. Another says: "With you, we will protect every part of our territory."
El-Sissi himself has yet to appear at any campaign rallies, and his campaign spokesman, Mohammed Bahaa Abu Shouka, said Sunday the president has no plans, at least until the end of this week, to hold any rallies.
However, news of el-Sissi's meetings and his comments dominate the front pages of almost all newspapers on a daily basis and routinely top television news bulletins. His supporters organize daily rallies across much of the country, with most of the emphasis on persuading voters to come out and cast their ballots next month.
Significantly, campaign banners for the challenger, Moussa, are conspicuously absent. His campaign, however, said his banners would be displayed later on Sunday in several Cairo neighborhoods.
Moussa told the independent al-Shorouk daily in an interview published Saturday that he did not intend to request a debate with el-Sissi. "I am a pragmatic and realistic man and I know that el-Sissi has massive achievements to his name," he said.
In addition to arresting and intimidating would-be candidates, authorities are investigating leaders of secular and liberal opposition parties as well as public figures who openly branded the election a "sham" and called on voters to boycott the vote.
Separately, the election commission has issued guidelines for the media's coverage of the election. They include the prohibition of publishing the findings of any opinion polls during the five days preceding the start of the vote and until it ends.
It has banned reporters from asking voters about their preferred candidate before or after they cast their ballots. Conducting opinion polls outside or nearby polling stations is also prohibited.
Offenders would have their accreditation revoked.
El-Sissi has emerged as a prominent voice against Islamic radicalism and presided over economic reforms that have stabilized the economy, reignited investment and aid, and revived some sectors battered since the country's tumultuous 2011 uprising. Critics, however, note high inflation, his stifling of political opposition, and setbacks in his ongoing efforts to end terrorist attacks on Christians and others and quash a jihadi insurrection in the Sinai Peninsula.
Also on Sunday, prosecutors have ordered a freeze on the assets of Abdel-Monaem Abul Fetouh, a 2012 presidential candidate and a prominent Islamist who was detained earlier this month. Sunday's move came less than a week after authorities added Abul Fetouh to a list of wanted "terrorists" over his alleged links to the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group.
Abul Fetouh, 66, was a longtime Brotherhood member, but quit the group to run for president in the 2012 election won by Mohammed Morsi, a Brotherhood stalwart whose rule proved divisive. Morsi was ousted a year later by the military, then led by el-Sissi, and a massive crackdown on his supporters followed.
Since Morsi's overthrow, pro-government media have insisted Abul Fetouh's true sympathies still lie with the Brotherhood, which has been designated a terrorist group.
He is the leader of the Strong Egypt party, whose deputy, Mohammed el-Kassas, was also detained over alleged links to the Brotherhood.