Egypt to hold May 26-27 presidential election

By Shadia Nasralla CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptians will vote on May 26-27 in a presidential election that Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is expected to win easily, meaning the former army chief who deposed Islamist President Mohamed Mursi could be sworn in as head of state by early June. Widely seen as Egypt's de facto leader since he deposed Mursi after mass protests against his rule, Sisi enjoys backing from supporters who see him as Egypt's saviour. But he is viewed by the Islamist opposition as the mastermind of a coup that ignited the worst internal strife in Egypt's modern history. It will be the second time Egyptians have voted in a presidential election in less than two years. But in contrast to the 2012 vote won by Mursi, this election follows a fierce government crackdown on dissent that has included both Islamists and secular-minded democracy activists. The Brotherhood, Egypt's best organized political party until last year, has been banned and driven underground. So far, the only other candidate is leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, who came third in the 2012 election that was contested by more than a dozen politicians from across the political spectrum. With Sisi expected to win comfortably, the vote is not likely to go to a second round. The result of the first round will be announced no later than June 5, the organizing committee said at a news conference to outline the timeline for the voting. Sisi stepped down as defense minister and army chief in order to announce his candidacy last Wednesday. He has been lionized by state- and privately-run media that are overwhelmingly loyal to the army-backed government. A Sisi victory will mark a return to the days when Egypt's presidency was held by men from the military - a pattern briefly interrupted during Mursi's one year in office. Parliamentary elections are expected to follow the presidential vote, though a date has yet to be set. CONTINUED UNREST Egypt's next president faces huge challenges including a reviving an economy hit by more than three years of political turmoil. Announcing his intention to run last week, Sisi said he would tackle militant attacks that have spiraled since Mursi was toppled. In the latest violence, a soldier was killed on Sunday in an attack on the bus he was driving in the town of Al-Arish in the Sinai Peninsula. A new figure released by the Egyptian foreign ministry on Saturday said that 496 people, 439 of them soldiers and policemen, had been killed in what it described as terrorist attacks since last summer. At a news conference on Sunday, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim screened footage of a militant confessing to attacks on the security forces. The Brotherhood says it remains committed to peaceful activism, though the state has declared it a terrorist group. With thousands of Brotherhood supporters in jail, protests against the military-backed government are now mostly confined to universities. One student was killed in clashes with police at the Islamic Al-Azhar University in Cairo on Sunday, state news agency MENA reported, quoting university officials. A Reuters witness said police used tear gas and buckshot to disperse the protesters who had attempted to block traffic in the main street outside the university. Most of the Brotherhood's top leadership, Mursi included, have been jailed since last July. Khaled al-Azhari, a minister in the Mursi government, was on Sunday sentenced to two years in prison for sheltering another Brotherhood politician. ESPIONAGE Mursi faces charges that include conspiring with foreign militant groups and governments against Egypt. Since Mursi was overthrown, Egypt's relations have soured with states including Turkey and Qatar, both of which supported his administration. At his news conference, the interior minister said a Palestinian employee of Qatar's Al Jazeera network had taken part in a plot to leak sensitive Egyptian state documents to an Arab state during Mursi's presidency. Ibrahim said the channel published a copy of one of the documents. In a separate case, a Turkish citizen was sentenced to three years in prison by a court in Suez for crimes including espionage, an attempt to obtain information pertaining to national security and communicating with Brotherhood leaders, MENA reported. Three of Al Jazeera's journalists, one of them an Australian, are facing trial on charges of aiding members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Human rights groups have criticized the case as a violation of freedom of expression. (Reporting by Shadia Nasralla, Yasmine Saleh, Asma Alsharif and Stephen Kalin, Editing by Tom Perry and Angus MacSwan)