CAIRO - Campaigning opened Saturday in Egypt for a May election likely to be won by the ex-army chief who deposed the elected president, after deadly bombings underscored tensions ahead of the vote.
The May 26-27 presidential poll, meant to restore elected rule following the July overthrow of Islamist Mohamed Morsi, 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 leader who can restore stability, but his opponents fear that might be at the cost of long sought freedoms.
"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.
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.
More than three tumultuous year after Mubarak's ouster, many voters yearn for a self proclaimed strong leader who can impose law and order.
If Sisi, 59, wins, he will restore a line of military men at the helm of the country that was interrupted by the civilian Morsi's year in power.
"I promise to work hard, and I ask everyone to assume responsibility with me. Building this nation is the responsibility of us all," he said on Twitter Saturday.
"Stability, security and hope for Egypt will be achieved through our will and capabilities."
The retired field marshal reviled by Morsi's supporters, vowed to stamp out a surge in militant attacks such as bombings 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.
Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and the militants are expected to step up protests and attacks should Sisi win, despite the widest crackdown on Islamists in decades.
At least 1,400 people, mostly Islamists, have been killed in street clashes, including hundreds on August 14 alone, while thousands have been jailed and placed on trials.
On Saturday, a Cairo court sentenced 102 Morsi supporters to 10 years in prison for protest violence.
Vote amid crackdown
The crackdown has extended to target secular activist groups that supported Morsi's overthrow but have since turned on the army-installed military as it tightens the clamps 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 say the Brotherhood is a terrorist group responsible for much of the attacks since Morsi's overthrow, which have killed almost 500 security personnel.
If he wins, Sisi, who promises to salvage the economy, is expected to slash a bloated subsidy system that has kept some food items and gas at extremely low prices.
Such a move may fuel unrest by erstwhile supporters as prices and inflation rise.
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.
He is scheduled to give his first interview in months on Monday to two Egyptian television anchors, their broadcasters announced in a statement.