March 20, 2018 / 9:19 AM / 3 months ago

RPT-Sisi's only challenger lies low ahead of Egyptian election

(Edits headline)

* “I am not an extra!” Moussa Mostafa Moussa insists

* Has also said he hopes ex-general Sisi wins re-election

* All other candidates drop out, citing intimidation

By Nadine Awadalla

CAIRO, March 19 (Reuters) - Days ahead of Egypt’s presidential election, Moussa Mostafa Moussa, the only candidate standing against incumbent Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is avoiding the limelight.

Moussa’s presidential bid seemed to come as a surprise even to his own party. Hours before the candidate nomination window closed in January, a member of his team was photographed running down a Cairo street to the election commission to make the deadline.

Until then, the obscure leader of the Ghad party had been organising events to endorse a second term for Sisi.

Moussa denies suggestions by critics that he is running just to provide a candidate other than Sisi in the election, but is still vocally supportive of the former general and army commander and has said he hopes he wins.

The former businessman’s apparent change of heart came after all other opposition candidates dropped out, citing intimidation of supporters, media vilification and an unfair campaigning environment after the arrest of the only serious challenger.

Egypt’s election commission says the vote will be free and fair, and Sisi’s campaign says no candidate wanting to run has been blocked, but the events around other challengers have all but guaranteed Sisi a landslide victory.

Moussa said in several interviews that leaving Sisi as the sole contender was “an image that was not suitable for Egypt.”

“We have a positive role to play in the competition, so (our bid) comes not just due to our nationalistic motivations - we also think we have ideas to offer,” Moussa said in a January appearance on a TV show.

Supporters say Sisi has brought more security since 2013, when as army chief he overthrew Islamist President Mohamed Mursi, though Egypt faces a stubborn Islamic State insurgency in the North Sinai region. Critics say Sisi’s popularity has been damaged by austerity reforms and a crackdown on political opponents, activists and independent media.

AVOIDING CRITICISM OF SISI

Moussa says he disagrees with Sisi on some policies, chiefly the implementation of a tough economic reform programme since late 2016 which has included a currency float and subsidy cuts.

He promises to help farmers, reduce the soaring prices of basic goods, and increase wages to assist the many Egyptians who say they can barely afford enough food.

But most Egyptians know little about Moussa.

For weeks, he was not seen in public apart from some television appearances while thousands of posters supporting Sisi bedecked the streets of Cairo.

When asked about donations to his campaign, he told evening talk show host Lamis al-Hadidi that support has been scant.

“Some people imagine that if they came out and showed support for me they’d be perceived as being against the state, and that’s wrong,” Moussa said.

His first public rally through the streets of central Cairo was attended mostly by journalists eager for a glimpse of the last-minute competitor, rather than supporters.

Moussa has avoided criticising Sisi’s policies, promising instead to continue along the same path should he win.

Opposition activists, journalists and analysts have dismissed Moussa as a dummy candidate, standing only to give the impression of a full democratic contest.

“I am not an extra!” Moussa said heatedly at a press conference last month - a line he has often repeated since.

Hadidi asked him during the TV interview if anyone in his family thought the personal funds going into a campaign destined to fail were wasteful. “They understand my national duty and that I have something to offer,” Moussa replied.

Despite the ridicule, Moussa has continued to give interviews to local television channels and newspapers, but has declined to be interviewed by the foreign media.

“I do not want to meet with the foreign press at a time so full of uncertainty...I do not know how they will utilise this meeting, and I know they will not use it against me but against the president and the country. Their goals are full of evil,” he told state newspaper al-Ahram. (Editing by John Davison/Mark Heinrich)

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