CAIRO (AP) — The government's former top anti-graft fighter who was seriously injured in an apparent kidnapping attempt last month said he believed the attack was connected to his role in the campaign of a would-be candidate who tried to run in Egypt's upcoming presidential election.

Hesham Genena, the former top government auditor, told The Associated Press that during the attack he feared he'd meet a fate similar to Guilio Regeni, an Italian graduate student whose badly tortured body was dumped in the desert near Cairo in 2016.

"I could have just been found dead in the desert like Regeni and the culprits would have never been found," he said in an interview Wednesday night at his home in a suburb of Cairo.

Regeni's gruesome abduction-killing raised suspicions that Egypt's security agencies were involved in his death. The government denies that claim, but Rome prosecutor Giuseppe Pignatone said recently that Regeni had been under police surveillance in Egypt and that his research into labor unions was the motivation behind the killing.

Egyptian rights activists say security agents have several times in recent years abducted dissidents, questioned them and then left them in the desert blindfolded and stripped of most of their clothes. Police have been known in the past to use ex-convicts to intimidate opponents as well.

Genena, who previously also served as a former senior judge and police officer, was a top aide of would-be presidential candidate Sami Annan, a former military chief of staff. Annan's campaign was cut short Jan. 23, when the military arrested the ex-general over allegations of forgery and incitement against the military. He has not been seen publicly since his arrest.

Annan was one of a string of would-be candidates who were arrested or forced out of the race ahead of the March election. His bid to enter the race was particularly sensitive since it would have pitted President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi — a former head of the armed forces — against another top figure from the military. In the end, el-Sissi — who is virtually certain to win the election — will face only a little known politician who stepped forward at the last minute in an effort to avert the embarrassment of a one-candidate race.

Asked if he believed the Jan. 27 attack was connected to Annan's presidential bid, Genena said, "This is true." Genena, who suffered injuries to his left eye and knee, was attacked several days after Annan's arrest.

He told the AP the attack came just after he left home at around 8:30 in the morning to drive to the election commission and later to the High Administrative Court to join other lawyers filing an appeal against the removal of Annan's name from the official would-be candidates list.

He said he was convinced his phone was being monitored because he had been talking for the previous 48 hours to the other lawyers about the plans to appeal. "I don't think that ordinary people are capable of doing that alone" he said, adding that he had often been to the court in the past but "I was only attacked when my intention to visit it was linked to Sami Annan." He said a lawyer carrying the appeal documents was barred by security personnel from entering the court building.

He said that as he drove from his house, he was immediately followed by a black Mercedes sedan with darkened windows. The mystery Mercedes then suddenly accelerated and cut Genena's car off just as a smaller car raced up from behind and stopped, trapping him from both sides. A burly man came out of the Mercedes, asked Genena to identify himself and then ordered him to step out of the car.

Genena refused. "The next thing was that I was punched in the face and then two other men, one from the Mercedes and one from the car behind me, came over and started hitting me with metal objects," he said. A crowd gathered and tried to talk the assailants down.

"We are here to kill him and we will kill anyone who comes near us too," Genena said one of the assailants yelled at the crowd.

"My seat belt saved men from being dragged out and my heavy winter clothes reduced the impact of the blows to my body," he recounted. "I kept trying to pull back the car's door while they tried to open it. At the end I was exhausted and passed out briefly," said Genena.

The Mercedes escaped from the scene just before police arrived — about 20 minutes after the attack began. The three attackers remained, and one lay down on the sidewalk, claiming Genena ran him over with his car.

The attackers were brought to the police station along with Genena and pressed charges of assault against him, as well as against his wife and a daughter who rushed to the scene during the attack.

"All three were very relaxed ... smoking and drinking tea. Their lawyers were allowed to see them but mine were denied entry to the station," Genena said, adding that he was not taken to the hospital until about four hours after the attack.

"I have no explanation for how the police handled the case except that they were acting on orders from way up," he said.

The day of the events, authorities said Genena was involved in a car accident that was followed by a brawl in which he and other men suffered injuries. Genena, who still faces the assault charges, was hospitalized for two days following the attack. He said a witness who wanted to testify against the assailants was detained for two days after which he disappeared without giving his testimony.

Genena led Egypt's watchdog agency until el-Sissi fired him in 2016 after an investigation ordered by the president hurriedly concluded that he had misled the public when he told a pro-government daily that Egypt lost $67.6 billion in corruption in 2015 alone. He later said he was misquoted.