CAIRO (AP) – Supporters of retired Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi danced to pop tunes praising the military and sported T-shirts bearing his image as they cast ballots Monday in a presidential election that is considered certain to vault the former military chief to office.
El-Sissi, who last summer ousted Egypt’s first freely elected president, is likely to win the two-day vote by a landslide. But he is looking for a strong turnout to show international critics that his removal of Islamist Mohammed Morsi reflected the will of the people.
The election is a powerful contrast to 2012 presidential elections, which were the first after the toppling of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak by a popular uprising the year before.
In that race, there were 13 candidates and a rollicking campaign that saw lively debate over how to achieve the ideals of the “revolution.” Morsi, a veteran figure from the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, won in part because even many who distrusted the Islamists preferred him to his opponent – Mubarak’s last prime minister Ahmed Shafiq – seen as a throwback to the former state.
This time, the Brotherhood is out of the race, crushed under a ferocious crackdown that has killed hundreds of Morsi’s supporters and arrested thousands more since his removal. El-Sissi has been elevated by a surge of nationalism fed by media lauding him as the nation’s savior. His only opponent in the race is leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, who finished third in the 2012 election.
And all that most voters want is stability and an end to years of turmoil, despite worries among critics that the 59-year-old el-Sissi will bring it by suppressing dissent.
“He is a military strict man. He will grip the country and bring security to the street,” said Olfat Sayed Hasanein, a university professor who voted for el-Sissi. “We cannot afford any more failures.”
El-Sissi, wearing a suit and tie, cast his vote at a school in the upscale Cairo district of Heliopolis, as women cheered and ululated to greet him. “The whole world is watching to see how the Egyptians will make history,” he told reporters.
At many polling stations, voters waved Egyptian flags and wore clothes in the national red-white-and-black colors. Men and women danced to pro-military pop songs, “Bless the Hands” and “A Good Omen,” which emerged after the July 3 military ouster and have been constantly played in the streets and on the radio since.
“El-Sissi is the greatest person in the world,” said Nasser Meghres, a 54-year-old businessman from Heliopolis. “We have absolute faith in the army and the police.”
Speaking to reporters as he cast his vote, Sabahi urged Egyptians to “come out and vote for their future.” Voting continues for a second day on Tuesday.
The balloting is taking place amid tight security, with some 500,000 soldiers and police deployed. Security forces in body armor, some of them masked, were in sandbagged positions outside polling station. Army and police helicopters hovered over Cairo as part of the massive security operation underway Monday.
Posters with pictures of the security forces were plastered across Cairo to urge voters to the polls, proclaiming, “Come out and we will protect you.”
Nearly four hours after the polls opened at 9 a.m., there were no reports of major election-related violence. A crude homemade explosive device was hurled from a passing car at security personnel outside a polling center in a village close to the industrial city of Mahalla in the Nile Delta, but no one was hurt.
By percentage of votes, el-Sissi could win a landslide, but his camp’s attention will be more focused on the turnout among the 53 million registered. A low turnout would show the narrowness of his support in a country that has risen up against two presidents since 2011.
If Sabahi manages to thwart a landslide with a respectable showing, it would be a further blow, showing an existing and active opposition to el-Sissi despite the media hype.
Mustafa Abdel-Monaim, a small business owner in Cairo, is voting for Sabahi, arguing that an el-Sissi presidency goes against the goals of the 2011 uprising.
“I know that el-Sissi will win, but I will vote for Sabahi to prevent him from getting a landslide,” he said.
It is too early to gauge the turnout, but lines were formed outside polling centers in Cairo nearly an hour before they opened. The chief EU observer mission, Mario David, said early signs point to a good turnout.
“At this very moment we see that the queues are very long,” he told reporters. “I think this is a sign of vitality, a sign of democracy.”
The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group from which Morsi hails, has instructed its followers to boycott the vote. Also boycotting the polls are many of the pro-democracy youths who have participated in the 2011 uprising against longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
“Those who are boycotting are not true Egyptian nationalists because they are giving a chance to Turkey and Qatar to tarnish our image,” said Mohammed Farouq, a voter from the Cairo district of Kit Kat.
Both Turkey and Qatar have supported the Muslim Brotherhood and have expressed their opposition to Morsi’s ouster.
El-Sissi has pledged to bring democracy to Egypt but Morsi’s backers say the ouster of an elected president crushed those hopes. El-Sissi’s supporters say he saved the country from Islamists while his secular critics fear he will enshrine a Mubarak-style autocracy once more.
“We want security first, then everything else will follow,” said Manal Mohammed, a government employee standing in line outside a polling center in the densely populated Cairo district of Imbabah.
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