By Omar Fahmy and Amina Ismail
CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said on Friday he will run for a second term in office in an election in March, which the former military commander is widely expected to win.
Sisi's rule has brought some stability to the country, but critics say his popularity has been eroded by tough economic reforms that have hit people's livelihood's hard and by a crackdown on dissidents.
His supporters on the other hand say measures are needed to keep the country stable as it faces security challenges including attacks by Islamic State militants in the North Sinai region.
"Today ... I tell you frankly and transparently that I hope you would allow and accept my candidacy for the president's post," Sisi told a cheering crowd.
The vote will be held on March 26-28, with a run-off vote on April 24-26 if no candidate wins more than 50 percent in the first round. Candidates will register from Jan. 20 to 29.
In the televised announcement, Sisi listed Egypt's achievements during his first term, including a nascent financial recovery after years of political turmoil and economic instability.
"Building the state takes 16 to 20 years, I am trying to finish it in 8 years, God willing," Sisi said.
Sisi came to prominence when he led the army's ouster of President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 - Egypt's first freely elected leader - two years after the downfall of longtime ruler President Hosni Mubarak in the "Arab Spring" uprisings that swept the Middle East.
The former general became president himself in 2014, winning 96.91 percent of the vote, although turnout was only about 47 percent of the 54 million voters, after voting was extended for a day.
Sisi's critics say his popularity has been hurt by austerity reforms, security problems, a crackdown on dissidents and his decision to hand two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, which showered Egypt with billions of dollars of aid, touching a nationalistic nerve.
Rights groups say he has led an unprecedented crackdown on political opponents, activists and critical media.
"I pledge that the upcoming presidential election will be free and transparent .. and be characterized by equal opportunities between candidates," Sisi said.
Those challenging Sisi describe a sweeping effort to kill off their campaigns before they have begun, with media attacks on candidates, intimidation of supporters, and a nomination process stacked in favour of the former general.
"There are people I know who are corrupt, I will not allow them to come near this chair," Sisi said earlier in the ceremony without elaborating.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik, seen as the most serious potential challenger to date, said he was no longer considering a bid following a firestorm of criticism from state-aligned media and speculation that he was being held by authorities in a Cairo hotel.
His most high-profile challengers are former army chief of staff Sami Anan and human rights lawyer Khaled Ali, but neither is expected to garner enough votes to oust him.
Thousands of Sisi's supporters gathered at the Cairo stadium calling for the former military commander to run for a second term. Public figures, actors and parliamentarians were amongst the crowd.
"We wanted Mr. President to continue with us," Medhat al-Adl, a famous scriptwriter and poet, said from the podium as people cheered and waved the Egyptian flag and Sisi's portrait. "This is not his will, this is the will of all of us," he added.
Egyptian presidents have often "used false organic displays of popularity as part of their political propaganda toolkit," said Timothy Kaldas, non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
"Events like these seek to signal to the public that Sisi has enthusiastic popular support and this message is protected by the fact that anyone with access to the media is rarely allowed to suggest otherwise," Kaldas added.
(Reporting by Omar Fahmy and Amina Ismail; Writing by Amina Ismail and John Davison; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Richard Balmforth)