Several leading Egyptian opposition figures have called for a boycott of the upcoming March presidential election arguing that repression had cleared the field of challengers and left president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s top opponent in jail.

Sisi was elected in 2014, only a year after leading the army to oust unpopular Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. The March election will be the third since mass protests ousted long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

The United Nations, human rights groups, and opposition figures criticised the run-up as compromised by illegal arrests, the intimidation of political opponents, and a rigged nomination process.

Sisi’s only registered opponent in the election will be Ghad (Tomorrow) Party chair Mustafa Mousa, who officially filed his candidacy only minutes before the January 29 deadline. Serious doubts, however, remain over the genuine nature of Mousa’s late candidacy. He openly supported Sisi last year after he launched a national campaign for a second term.

Would-be challengers who are no longer in the race include a former prime minister, a former military chief of staff, a prominent rights lawyer and a former lawmaker. They were unlikely to win the race, but their participation would have attracted protest votes against Sisi, including from Egyptians hit hard by the president’s austerity measures and other economic reforms.

With all opposition candidates pushed out of the race, Sisi’s allies have gone through a series of hasty manoeuvres to try to make sure that there is at least one other name on the ballot to lend the vote an air of legitimacy.

A joint statement by leading opposition figures said that Egyptians should stay away from the polls because the government had prevented “even the semblance of fair competition”.

It is unlikely that the opposition’s call for a boycott will be followed. The highly influential Muslim institution Dar al-Ifta Al-Misriyyah – an Egyptian educational institute and government body founded to interpret Islamic law) issued a fatwa (a ruling on an Islamic law – on January 29 warning that any citizen who refrains from voting during an election is considered a “sinner”.