CAIRO – To some Egyptians, it looks like the old days are back.
With one potential challenger after another arrested, quitting or being forced out of the race, the March presidential election is increasingly taking on the character of the one-candidate referendums held for decades by Egypt's authoritarian rulers.
What's startling is how general-turned-President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi seems to have dropped any pretense of holding a truly democratic vote.
He has shrugged off any accusations of a return to the kind of authoritarianism that was supposed to have been buried in the past after the popular uprising that erupted seven years ago and brought down longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Some critics already are speculating that the next move may be to amend the constitution to remove altogether the condition that no president serves more than two four-year terms.
With not a single serious challenger left in the race, pressure mounted on one political party that already declared its support for el-Sissi to field a face-saving candidate. Doing so, said some party leaders and public figures loyal to el-Sissi, would enrich the country's democratic experience and counter doubts about the election's credibility.
But after two days of intense deliberations, the Wafd party, one of Egypt's oldest, decided Saturday not to do so and instead renewed its support for the incumbent, saying only he would be able to handle the "challenges" facing the nation.
"The people in el-Sissi's circle have been trying to find a way out of an embarrassing one-candidate election," said Hisham Kassem, an analyst and a publisher. "But in doing so, they risked broadening what's already a tragicomedy."
In his final years, Mubarak allowed other candidates to run against him, and el-Sissi faced a challenger in 2014. This time around, he did not seem to feel the need to allow even a weak, unknown opponent to stand as a symbolic challenger.
The possibility of a single-candidate election has raised scathing criticism and mockery on social media, with some newspaper columnists in the pro-government media politely warning against the strategy.
But el-Sissi appears to see little danger of a public backlash, or a serious rebuke from his allies in the West, who once urged democratic reforms.
The overwhelmingly pro-el-Sissi media depict him as the only figure able to solve Egypt's problems, and the president himself often says the need to rebuild the country outweighs concerns over democracy and rights.
A significant sector of the population likely agrees with the argument — though how much is unknown, since authorities prevent most polling and have outlawed all unauthorized protests.
"With the departure of one more hopeful from the presidential race, the election is on the brink of losing its spirit, credibility and respect before society and the outside world," Abdullah el-Sinnawy, a one-time supporter of el-Sissi, wrote Thursday in the independent Al-Shorouk newspaper.
"Regardless of the circumstances and context, the general picture is very alarming," he said.
El-Sissi has often said he wants to establish a modern civil state in Egypt, but his policies have raised questions over whether he actually believes in democratic principles. His public discourse has almost exclusively been focused on the fight against Islamic militants, efforts to revive an ailing economy and the infrastructure "mega projects" he has overseen.
He has meanwhile overseen one of the harshest crackdowns in memory, jailing thousands of Islamists along with activists behind the 2011 uprising. He also has silenced most of his critics, severely restricted the work of rights groups and blocked scores of online news sites.
The circumstances of how the would-be candidates have quit or were forced to drop out of the race offer insights into Egypt's political machinations:
A former air force general and Mubarak's last prime minister, Shafiq lived in self-imposed exile in the United Arab Emirates since shortly after finishing a close second in the 2012 presidential election won by the Islamist Mohammed Morsi. Last month, he was deported from the Emirates, a close Egyptian ally, and flown back to Cairo after he announced he intended to run. He was met at the airport by unidentified security men and whisked away to a suburban hotel. Government representatives persuaded him to abandon his presidential ambitions, raising the specter of legal proceedings over alleged corruption during his tenure as civil aviation minister, according to numerous, unconfirmed reports. He was viciously attacked in pro-government media, with unsubstantiated accusations leveled against him. Earlier this month, he issued a statement saying his years in exile left him out of touch with reality in Egypt and he did not believe himself to be the "ideal" man to lead the country at this stage.
The former general quietly served as the military's chief of staff under Mubarak, drawing national attention only in the 17 months of military rule after Mubarak's ouster. As the deputy head of the then-ruling Supreme Military Council, he negotiated the transfer of power to Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in June 2012. Two months later, Morsi removed him. He has since stayed in the background, seldom heard of in the media but not concealing his presidential ambitions. This month, he announced his intent to challenge el-Sissi and posted a video on social media that berated the president for involving the military in civilian affairs and urging civilian and military institutions to stay neutral in the race. One of the two top deputies he chose for his campaign is widely suspected of being close to the Muslim Brotherhood, which was outlawed by el-Sissi after he ousted Morsi in 2013. Annan's video had something for everyone in Egypt and he instantly appeared to have an outside chance to win. But on Tuesday, the military hit him with a slate of charges, including incitement against the armed forces, forgery and breaching military regulations. He has been detained for questioning.
The prominent rights lawyer was the last potentially serious challenger until Wednesday, when he announced he was quitting the race. He complained that authorities targeted his supporters, and that the election commission was ignoring his complaints and requests. He also charged that poor Egyptians had been bribed by el-Sissi loyalists to sign documents supporting his candidacy. His own supporters faced delays and intimidation at notary offices where they needed to register 25,000 "recommendations" for him to qualify as a candidate. "All indications pointed to a premeditated intention to poison the entire process and empty it of its supposed democratic content," he said. A key left-leaning figure in the 2011 uprising, Ali had the potential to win protest votes and, perhaps more importantly, revive interest in street politics by fellow "revolutionaries" whose ranks have been depleted by imprisonment, exile or marginalization. He could have also tapped into the deep frustration of millions of voters hit hard by el-Sissi's austerity measures and other economic reforms. His campaign was put at risk after he was convicted in September of an immoral act in public — allegedly making a gesture with his middle finger — a charge that he described as ridiculous and meant to tarnish his image in Egypt's conservative society.
MOHAMMED ANWAR SADAT
The former lawmaker said he quit the race because the climate was not conducive for campaigning and because he feared for the safety of his supporters. A nephew of Egypt's assassinated leader Anwar Sadat, he was thrown out of parliament amid allegations of leaking sensitive documents to foreign diplomats. Many believe, however, that he was the victim of a witch hunt by el-Sissi's supporters in the chamber after he questioned the legality of financial perks enjoyed by army officers who take up full-time government jobs after retirement.
The army colonel declared his intention to run, only to be court- martialed and convicted of breaching military regulations prohibiting political activism. He was sentenced to six years in prison last month.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Hamza Hendawi, The Associated Press' chief of bureau in Cairo, has covered the Middle East for the AP since 1995.