With dissent crushed, Egypt’s presidential campaign is a subdued affair

outsized posters of Abdel Fatah al-Sisi stare down on empty rooms inside the headquarters of a campaign for the Egyptian president’s second term in power. Egypt’s presidential election is two months away, but the repurposed five-room apartment that serves as the movement’s hub stands silent, except for the hum of traffic from the street outside, a bustling two-lane artery for Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

The unofficial campaign – named “To Build It” – began in October in a bid to stir up support for Sisi, long before the March election date was even announced, and long before Sisi’s official announcement on Friday that he will run.

Sisi’s victory appears assured; dissent has been crushed, and other presidential candidates taken out of the running. However, despite the efforts of the To Build It campaigners, support for the former military general remains muted.

In December, the campaign reported that it had gathered more than 12m signatures from citizens imploring Sisi to run for a second term in office. Yet one Egyptian TV news channel recently broadcast footage of people being paid to sign the petition, while a headteacher in the Nile Delta region was investigated after posting a message instructing employees to sign it and send proof to the school and the local education authority.

During a visit to the campaign’s headquarters last week, the Guardian found a single staff member sitting next to a large stack of unsigned petitions.

“There was a lady who came in with her child, and it immediately ran to kiss the shoes on that poster!” chuckled Mohammed Taher, the only person on duty, gesturing towards a large picture of Sisi wearing a crisp blue suit and shiny shoes. A list of slogans next to him read: “Because we need to purify our country of terrorism. So that we can continue to pioneer. So we can get rid of corruption.”

Sisi’s announcement that he will run for a second term followed a three-day conference entitled “Story of a Nation” to tout his achievements. The autocrat rode to power following a 2013 military coup and an aggressive cult-of-personality campaign that saw his face adorning chocolates and even women’s underwear before he won the 2014 election with 97% of the vote.

Four years on, the songs composed to drum up support for him are rarely heard, after periods of crippling economic instability and increasing jihadist violence.

On the campaign trail in 2014, Sisi promised stability and economic prosperity for Egyptians. The years since have been marked by a steady and sometimes bloody suppression of any opposition. Civil society activity is heavily curtailed, while Egypt has been branded “one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists” by the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders.

The Egyptian government accepted an emergency loan from the IMF in late 2016 to stave off a deepening economic crisis, which brought temporary reprieve, but precipitated skyrocketing living costs for the average Egyptian.

“Anyone who gets elected will make promises; it’s how long he takes to fulfil them [that matters],” said Taher. “Sisi’s not a magician – he needs time to fix these things.” He said people had travelled from far afield to come to the headquarters and sign, but couldn’t say how many signatures the main branch of the campaign had gathered.

A 2016 poll by the Egyptian centre for public opinion research found Sisi’s popularity had dropped from 82% to 68% after 28 months in office. No similar poll has been conducted since.

Taher’s own political trajectory mirrors many of the changes in Egypt since the overthrow of the former dictator, Hosni Mubarak. The 25-year-old joined the protests that toppled the dictator in January 2011, one of many young people “driven by the possibility of change”, he said.

“Now I have hope again,” he said, alone in the offices of the campaign he has worked on for three months. He explained that his boss, the MP Mohammed Shaaban who founded To Build It, offered his employees at an electricity company that he runs paid leave to work on the campaign, and Taher accepted. Shaaban did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

On Tuesday, Egypt’s ex-military chief Sami Anan – seen as one of the few serious challengers for the presidency – was detained in Cairo after announcing his intention to run.

Anwar el Sadat, the nephew of Egypt’s former leader, declared he would not run for president last week, citing an atmosphere forbidding “the possibility of honest competition”. He criticised To Build It for collecting signatures from government employees before the nomination process had begun, a practice he said violates election rules.

Sadat and leftist lawyer Khaled Ali have both cited a campaign of targeted harassment and election violations against their supporters. Ali is unlikely to be able to run due to an ongoing court case.

Sisi recently received endorsements from more than 500 of the 596 members of parliament before even officially declaring his intention to run for a second term.

After Anan’s detention, the only potential candidate able to run against him is the rightwing MP Mortada Mansour, who must obtain 25,000 signatures from at least 15 Egyptian governorates to enter the race.

“I would like for someone to run against Sisi, as that’s democracy,” said Taher. “So even though I support him I do want someone to run against him.”