By Asa Fitch
The Wall Street Journal
CAIRO—Campaigning for Egypt’s presidency officially kicked off on Saturday, three weeks ahead of an election that former army chief Abdel Fattah Al Sisi is widely expected to win.
The election will be the first since the military-brokered ousting of former Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi last July, a move that made Mr. Sisi wildly popular.
Mr. Sisi’s sole opponent in the election is Hamdeen Sabahi, a political veteran who came in third in the 2012 elections that put Mr. Morsi in power.
Given his comfortable lead, Mr. Sisi is expected to run a quiet campaign, avoiding confrontation with the scrappier Mr. Sabahi, who has repeatedly called for debates.
Threats on Mr. Sisi’s life from al Qaeda-linked militant groups and Islamists whom the military-backed interim government has branded terrorists may also limit his public appearances.
Taking to Twitter early Saturday morning, the first official day of campaigning for polls to be held on May 26 and 27, Mr. Sisi urged Egyptians to unite for stability and security—issues expected to figure prominently in the contest. In a separate tweet, he promised to work hard and asked “everyone to assume responsibility with me.”
His campaign later posted a short YouTube video showing Mr. Sisi seated in a shirt and tie delivering a message of unity, stability and prosperity through hard work.
Mr. Sabahi began with a rally in Asyut, where he laid out plans for the development of Upper Egypt, a stretch of countryside south of Cairo along the Nile, according to a campaign spokesman. He presented his electoral agenda at a news conference last week, while Mr. Sisi outlined his campaign goals at a meeting with journalists on Saturday, emphasizing social justice and development projects to create jobs.
Mr. Sisi’s first campaign TV appearance, a prerecorded interview, is set to air on two local satellite stations on Monday evening.
Leftist leader Hamdeen Sabahi speaking during a news conference at the Socialist Popular Alliance Party headquarters in Egypt on April 26. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Mr. Sisi has won the endorsement of a long list of political parties, and on Saturday added the Salafist Nour Party, according to a party spokesman. The Nour Party had backed Mr. Morsi but turned on him in the lead-up to last year’s coup.
As the short election season begins, sporadic violence attributed largely to Islamists and militants has put voters on edge.
Five people died in bombings and clashes on Friday in Cairo, Alexandria and the Sinai Peninsula, where militancy has been rising since Mr. Morsi’s toppling.
The violence is in part a response to a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other political opponents of Mr. Sisi. More than 1,000 pro-Morsi protesters were killed after last year’s military coup, and Mr. Morsi and tens of thousands of his supporters have been rounded up and imprisoned.
A judge last week sentenced 683 Brotherhood members to death, the second such mass-trial verdict in as many months. In another trial, 102 Brotherhood supporters were sentenced on Saturday in Cairo to 10 years in jail on murder charges connected with a protest last July. The crackdown and death sentences threaten to fray relations with the U.S., long a key ally and source of military aid.
Security is the No. 1 election issue facing Egyptians, according to Mosaad El Shony, a 32-year-old media administrator at a nongovernment organization in Al Mahallah Al Kubra, a working-class Nile delta town. He said lawlessness was an problem in the countryside, and that a local car dealership had been torched a few days ago.
“There’s no police presence,” he said. “There are a lot of people who are scared to go out and go home early because they are afraid of crime.”
Egypt’s precarious economic situation looks sure to be another campaign flash point. The Egyptian pound lost value against the dollar at the fastest rate in 11 months in April, underscoring the country’s thin foreign-currency reserves, chronic government revenue shortfalls, dwindling tourism industry and problems with capital flight.
The government spends about a fifth of its budget subsidizing fuel, but has struggled to maintain supplies and keep the lights on during peak demand in summer months. Power cuts have led to unrest in the past.
While the campaign will give rise to much debate, Adel Mohamed, a 60-year-old shopkeeper who supports Mr. Sisi, said who is in charge doesn’t really matter as long as Egyptians’ basic needs are met.
“We want to live a dignified life with clean water, clean bread and proper medical care,” he said. “We want to feel as if we’re human beings. What we all care about is to live a dignified life, even if we get a belly-dancer to rule Egypt.”
—Amina Ismail contributed to this article.
Write to Asa Fitch at email@example.com