Campaigning opened Saturday in Egypt for a presidential election likely to be won by the ex-army chief who deposed an elected Islamist leader, after deadly bombings underscored tensions gripping the country.
The May 26-27 presidential poll, meant to restore elected rule following the military overthrow of Mohamed Morsi last July, is widely expected to place former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in power.
His only rival, leftist Hamdeen Sabbahi, has emerged as an opposition figure claiming to represent the ideals of the 2011 uprising that overthrew veteran strongman Hosni Mubarak, as the interim government presses a widening crackdown on dissent.
Sisi, widely popular for ousting the divisive Morsi, is seen by supporters as a strong leader who can restore stability, but his opponents fear that might come at the cost of freedoms sought in the pro-democracy uprising three years ago.
"The policies that were present under Mubarak are the same policies present now" under the military-installed regime, Sabbahi told a campaign rally in the southern city of Assiut.
"Our goal is to gain the people's trust to change the policies of corruption and tyranny and poverty," he said in remarks broadcast live on television.
He later said the army should not join "the enticement of politics or electoral battles", in a speech aired on state television.
Sabbahi, who came third in the 2012 election which Morsi won, is seen as a long shot in the face of a groundswell of support for Sisi, with many Egyptians yearning for a return to stability after three years of demonstrations, civil unrest and economic stagnation.
If the 59-year-old Sisi wins, he will restore a line of military men at the helm of the country that began in 1952 and was only interrupted by the civilian Morsi's year in power.
"Stability, security and hope for Egypt will be achieved through our will and capabilities," Sisi said on Twitter Saturday.
He later attended an interview with several local journalists, in which he wept when he spoke about receiving messages from poor Egyptians, the state-owned Ahram newspaper reported on its website.
"I get messages from people who can't afford to eat, they say we don't eat but we accept that for your sake," it quoted Sisi as saying.
The retired field marshal has vowed to stamp out a surge in militant attacks, including bombings on Friday that killed a policeman in Cairo and a soldier in the Sinai Peninsula.
The lawless north of the peninsula bordering Israel and the Gaza Strip has become a haven for Islamist militants, who launched a low-level insurgency following Morsi's overthrow.
Signup to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter!
The government has meanwhile waged a massive crackdown on Morsi's supporters, with an estimated 1,400 people, mostly Islamists, killed in street clashes and thousands more jailed.
On Saturday, a Cairo court sentenced 102 Morsi supporters to 10 years in prison for protest violence, and another court sentenced five Morsi supporters to five years in jail for rioting during the constitutional referendum in January, judicial sources said.
- Vote amid crackdown -
The crackdown has extended to secular activist groups that supported Morsi's overthrow but have since turned on the army-installed government as it clamps down on dissent.
Last week, a court banned the April 6 movement, which spearheaded the revolt against Mubarak. Its leader Ahmed Maher is already in prison for participating in an unlicenced protest last year.
Another court that day sentenced to death 683 people, including the Brotherhood's supreme guide Mohamed Badie, for deadly riots in August.
The ruling sparked an international outcry, but many in the Egyptian media, which is almost universally hostile to the Islamists, welcomed the verdict.
The government and much of the media present the Brotherhood as a terrorist group responsible for many of the attacks since Morsi's overthrow, which have killed almost 500 security personnel.
The government has also gone after media outlets it views as sympathetic to the Brotherhood, and Saturday saw the latest hearing in the trial of three Al-Jazeera journalists jailed since December.
One of the defendants, Australian correspondent Peter Greste, noted that the hearing was being held on World Press Freedom Day, denouncing the process as a "massive injustice."
If he wins, Sisi is expected to slash a bloated subsidy system that has kept some food items and gas at extremely low prices, potentially fuelling unrest.
Sisi has not yet unveiled his election programme, with campaign officials saying he wanted to wait until campaigning begins. The campaigning period ends on May 23.