As Egypt approaches its presidential election on Monday, voters have been left with two choices: incumbent Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the general turned president who has cracked down on challengers and dissent, or a barely known candidate.
Mousa Mostafa Mousa, 65, an Egyptian politician who emerged just in advance of the January 29 deadline as the sole contender to 63-year-old Sisi, has been avoiding the limelight and providing little evidence on streets of Cairo that he will be standing against him at all.
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Mousa, who leads the Ghad party, had endorsed Sisi for a second term and even organised events to help nominate the former military commander up until a week before the nomination deadline.
His presidential bid seemed to come as a surprise even to his own party. Hours before the candidate nomination window closed, a member of his team was photographed running down a Cairo street to the elections commission to make the deadline.
Mousa said the late decision to run came after all other candidates withdrew. He has continuously dismissed accusations that his candidacy was being used to present a false sense of competition.
“We are entering a fair and honourable competition in order to win,” Mousa told reporters at a press conference following the announcement of his candidacy.
Since his announcement, Mousa has failed to name the 20 members of parliament who reportedly endorsed him, allowing him to enter the race. His party endorsed Sisi’s presidential bid just 10 days before he announced his candidacy.
The election commission says the vote will be free and fair, but critics say Sisi has already ensured he will win a second term after seven other candidates withdrew, or were prevented from running.
While Mousa has said he would mount a full challenge to Sisi, opposition activists, journalists and analysts have dismissed him as a dummy candidate, standing only to give the impression of a full democratic contest.
“It’s pretty obvious to observers and Egyptians alike that Mousa is a mere puppet in the election,” an Egyptian analyst, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions, told Al Jazeera.
“He heads a party that has backed Sisi in the election, so it is clear that his candidacy is for the sake of creating an image of credibility for the vote.
“There isn’t a single Egyptian who believes this election will be free and fair,” added the analyst.
Egyptian political activist Salman al-Badry agreed: “Mousa’s candidacy only adds to the theatrical environment enveloping these elections.
“His electoral plan is nothing more than pen on paper; his policies are impossible to implement in light of the economic crisis which Sisi has created in Egpyt.”
Until the morning of his nomination, Mousa’s Facebook page carried a portrait of the president, with the statement, “Long Live Egypt: Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for president.”
That portrait was removed after Mousa’s candidacy was announced.
He has since told Egyptian news website Bawabat al-Ahram in February that if he were to win, he would “seek Sisi’s assistance in maintaining the achievements Sisi has already done”.
“My aim is to develop the country along the same path that Sisi has laid out,” said Mousa.
Mousa’s policy platform includes price controls for low-income citizens, reopening formerly shuttered factories, and a programme to fight congestion on the streets of Cairo. But he has avoided anything that could be interpreted as criticism of the president’s previous term.
Al Jazeera contacted Mousa’s campaign team for comment but did not receive a response at the time of publication.
Several leading opposition figures have called for a boycott of the election, saying repression had cleared the field of challengers and left Sisi’s top opponent in jail.
The United Nations, rights groups and opposition figures have also criticised the run-up as compromised by arrests, intimidation of opponents and a nomination process stacked in favour of the incumbent.
Egyptian authorities detained Sisi’s final serious rival, former military chief of staff Sami Anan, on January 23 shortly after he announced his candidacy. Anan was accused of illegally declaring his intention to contest the election before getting the military’s approval.
Several other potential contenders either withdrew from the race – like prominent human rights lawyer Khaled Ali and ex-Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik – or were detained.
According to the Egyptian analyst, Mousa’s candidacy was ordered by Sisi to create a “semblance of credibility” for the vote.
“When Khaled Ali dropped out of the electoral race, Sisi was caught off guard,” said the analyst
“He had thought that Ali would run without posing a real threat, unlike Anan and Shafik, while giving an image that the elections were fair.
“Mousa had no choice but to run an appear to have a plan.”
Sisi was elected in 2014, a year after leading the army to depose President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party.
The vote taking place from March 26-28 is the third presidential election since protests in 2011 unseated long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak.