By Jared Malsin – Wall Street Journal –

Critics say authorities have gone to unusual lengths to keep opponents out of the race. 

One aspiring candidate is in prison, jailed in December by an Egyptian military court. Another is disqualified while he stands trial. A third ended his candidacy after weeks of apparent house arrest in a luxury Cairo hotel.

Egypt’s election commission on Monday said voting in the country’s presidential election will be held over several days in March, with a possible runoff in April, setting in motion a campaign that so far has only one eligible contender with any chance of victory: President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi.

The election is taking place as the government grapples with yearslong economic malaise, escalating attacks by Islamic State militants and concerns about human rights following years of repression in which tens of thousands have been detained as political prisoners.

Mr. Sisi’s reelection is all but certain even though he has yet to announce he is running again. Support from Egypt’s security agencies ensures his victory. But recently the state has gone to what critics call unusual lengths to snuff out potential rivals, exceeding steps taken during three decades of autocratic rule under former President Hosni Mubarak, when a token electoral opposition was usually allowed.

An opponent might have almost no chance of winning, but a contentious campaign in the run-up to the March 26-28 vote could offer a rare forum to air public grievances about the government’s handling of the economy, terror attacks, and other issues.

In recent months a series of would-be candidates stepped forward, only to be ushered off the political stage through arrest, trial, or other interference by the authorities.

“The regime wants the appearance of a competitive election without any of the downside risks that entails,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a policy institute in New York.

Mr. Sisi won 97% of the vote in a procedural election in 2014, less than a year after leading a military coup that ousted the elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, followed by a crackdown that killed more than a thousand people.

In recent years the president launched an ambitious economic overhaul, floating Egypt’s currency and cutting subsidies in return for a $12 billion dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund secured in 2016. The economy at large has stabilized, but inflation is persistent and unemployment remains high. Many Egyptians have yet to experience any direct benefit from the reforms.

Meanwhile, Islamic State’s branch in Egypt recently escalated a wave of attacks, including killing more than 300 people at a Sinai mosque in November. The state’s failure to contain the insurgency has undermined Mr. Sisi’s claim that his government represents a bulwark against terrorism in the region.

Mr. Sisi’s highest-profile potential opponent stepped aside on Sunday following months of intrigue. Former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq ended his prospective campaign only days after returning home from a stay in a Cairo hotel, weeks after family members said they believed he was being held against his will. In a rare television interview in December, he said he was reconsidering his presidential bid and insisted he was “not kidnapped.”

 Analysts say Mr. Shafiq could have mounted a credible challenge to Mr. Sisi because like the president he emerged from Egypt’s military elite. A former air force commander, Mr. Shafiq served as Mr. Mubarak’s last prime minister after being appointed during the height of the 2011 revolt, when huge throngs of protesters battled police in the streets.

He then came within 900,000 votes of winning the presidency in 2012, when he lost in a run-off to Mr. Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who was deposed the following year in the coup led by Mr. Sisi.

Dina Hussein, the former prime minister’s lawyer, confirmed Sunday reports that Mr. Shafiq had returned home, but wouldn’t say whether or not he had been under arrest. “I have no information,” she said. Analysts believe the government pressured Mr. Shafiq into stepping aside. The government hasn’t commented.

“If he doesn’t run, I have one explanation: he has been coerced,” said Hisham Kassem, a political analyst in Cairo, speaking hours before Mr. Shafiq’s statement. “This man is hijacked.”

Egypt’s judiciary has eliminated two other potential candidates for now. An army colonel, Ahmed Konsowa, was sentenced to six years in prison for violating a rule against expressing a political opinion while an active military officer after he announced a presidential campaign in an online video. He is expected to appeal.

Human rights lawyer Khaled Ali is disqualified from running as he appeals a conviction on charges of “violating public decency” over a photograph of the attorney celebrating a court victory in 2016. Mr. Ali sued the government over the transfer of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, a step that fueled a wave of public outrage.

Another possible contender is Mohamed Anwar Sadat, a former member of parliament and the nephew of the late president of the same name. In a letter to the national election commission last week, Mr. Sadat, who has criticized the government’s restrictions on political freedom, said that he had been prevented by the National Security Agency from organizing a press conference. The NSA hasn’t commented.