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CAIRO – When the sole candidate running against Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi held a rally in downtown Cairo recently, all of 30 people showed up. And that wasn't even the biggest sign of the hollowness of his campaign.
Even more telling was one of the chants by the supporters of Moussa Mustafa Moussa, a virtually unknown politician who surfaced just so el-Sissi wouldn't run alone. It was hardly a resolute victory cry.
"Whether Moussa wins or el-Sissi wins, either is our president!" they shouted.
There is no question the general-turned-president el-Sissi will win a second four-year term. But the March 26-28 election will likely be remembered as the event that signaled Egypt's break with the little pretense it had left of democratic rule, seven years after a popular uprising toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak in the name of democracy.
The election was preceded by a purge of would-be opposing candidates, unprecedented even under Mubarak's nearly 30-year rule. Authorities also clamped down on the media, even egging the public to report anyone they feel is depicting Egypt in a bad light.
The question raised by many observers is why such extreme measures were taken to ensure a vote el-Sissi would probably win anyway.
El-Sissi seems convinced a genuinely contested election could destabilize the country, allow Islamists a back door into politics or interfere with his drive to revive the battered economy.
El-Sissi was first elected in a 2014 landslide after, as army chief, he led the military's ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. He kept much of that popularity while ferociously cracking down on Islamists and secular dissenters.
He has insisted stability must take priority over freedoms as he carried out large-scale infrastructure projects and painful austerity reforms. With those reforms, el-Sissi has succeeded in bringing some life back to the economy, though at the cost of inflation. El-Sissi has also made a name for himself on the international stage as a champion against Islamic militancy.
After the election, el-Sissi and his supporters will very likely attempt to get rid of the constitution's two term limit on the presidency, said Paul Salem, a senior Middle East expert from the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
"It might be the view of el-Sissi and his administration that this is needed for stability for economic and security reasons," Salem told The Associated Press. "My own personal view is that this buys stability for the short term but makes any transfer of power which has to happen sooner or later much more difficult."
El-Sissi hasn't bothered to campaign in person. Instead, the streets of Cairo and other cities have been swamped in a tidal wave of billboards, banners and posters with his image declaring: "He is the hope."
A decent turnout is the one thing left to give the election a measure of respectability. El-Sissi's supporters have organized rallies urging the public to vote. Pro-government media proclaim that voting is a religious duty and failing to do so is "high treason." Moussa's supporters chanted at his rally that would-be boycotters are traitors and cowards.
Imad Hussein, the pro-el-Sissi editor of Al-Shorouk newspaper, criticized the handling of the election, not because the field was engineered but because it wasn't done smoothly.
"We, of course, hoped to have a genuinely contested election," he wrote last month. "But since we don't have that, the government was supposed to at least prepare the stage to make it look democratic."
The methodical elimination of opponents suggested el-Sissi felt a vulnerability, particularly to a candidate rooted in the military who could exploit possible cracks in his popularity, whether over pain from economic reforms, resentment over crackdowns or frustration over continued militant violence.
Several candidates dropped out citing intimidation and harassment. But the harshest treatment was dealt out to two former generals: former military chief of staff Maj. Gen. Sami Annan and former air force general Ahmed Shafiq, who came a close second in the 2012 presidential election.
The 70-year-old Annan was arrested three days after he announced his candidacy in January and is still in a military prison. One of his top aides, Hisham Genena, was beat up by thugs and later arrested as well.
Even before his arrest, Annan was under surveillance for months and was directly advised to not to run, said senior security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
"He was fully aware of the consequences ... The warnings were crystal clear," one official said.
Shafiq was living in the United Arab Emirates when, in November, he announced plans to run. The Emiratis promptly deported him to Egypt, where he was immediately detained in a hotel. For days, security officials berated him to drop out of the race as pro-government media launched a campaign to discredit him, warning of corruption cases and exposure of alleged sexual indiscretions.
Shafiq buckled, announcing his withdrawal on Jan. 7. He remained effectively under house arrest, the officials said.
Annan and Shafiq would have offered an alternative for voters seeking change but wary of parting company with the military.
But more worrisome, their candidacies fueled speculation about possible fissures within the military, which prides itself on iron-clad unity and secrecy.
It is not known whether their bids to run against el-Sissi had any support among senior officers. But other developments have raised question marks, such as unexplained dismissals in past months of the military's chief of staff and the head of the General Intelligence Directorate, Egypt's version of the CIA, who also hails from the military. Government-controlled media have briefly mentioned conflicts among security and intelligence agencies, and there have been unconfirmed reports of top generals being sidelined.
"The regime is super sensitive," said Michael W. Hanna, an Egypt expert from New York's Century Foundation, "but it may also be facing internal tensions and rivalries that are seeping out into the public domain."