Egyptians massed to cast ballots in a presidential race widely expected to be won by the former defense chief who toppled the country’s first freely-elected civilian leader.
Voters lined up outside polling stations early in the morning, many waving the national flag and flashing victory signs as soldiers clutched assault rifles. The two-day vote, billed by authorities as a key step to restore stability, pits Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, who led the ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in July, against former lawmaker Hamdeen Sabahi, who came third in the 2012 presidential election.
The winner inherits a polarized nation struggling since the January, 2011 uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak to recover from political unrest, amid a surge of violence that’s deterred tourists and investors. El-Sisi, who has played a leading role in the bloodiest crackdown on Islamists in decades, has pledged to restore security and revive an economy relying on aid from oil-rich Gulf monarchies that see Egypt as too important to be allowed to fail.
“Today is Egypt’s wedding,” said Aziza Hassan, who came to a polling station in the affluent Cairo district of Zamalek to vote, dressed in the red, white and black colors of the Egyptian flag. “Egypt is the bride and El-Sisi is the groom who will save her and protect her from all evils. How can anyone not vote for the man who saved the country from the abyss.”
El-Sisi, a former Defense Minister whose posters are plastered along roads in Cairo and elsewhere, has already won more than 90 percent of votes among Egyptians overseas this month. Total results are expected by June 5.
More than 180,000 troops have been deployed to guard polling stations and state installations amid fears of attacks. Authorities reported that several homemade bombs planted near polling stations were defused in the greater Cairo area and elsewhere.
In the northeastern city of Zagazig, army troops detained seven students after clashes with security forces outside a university, state-run Ahram Gate reported. The students were allegedly attempting to disrupt the vote and were chanting that it was a “farce.” Several Sabahi campaign workers were also arrested, the campaign said in a statement.
El-Sisi, 59, entered the race only after securing what he said was a popular mandate to run. While Sabahi visited cities across Egypt and published a electoral platform, the retired field marshal mainly gave television interviews and videoconference calls, offering few details on how he would revive the economy.
That was enough for Ahmed Ibrahim, a 28-year-old engineer, to vote for Sabahi. “For us revolutionaries who took part in the uprising from the beginning in January, it’s reassuring,” he said in an interview, describing El-Sisi’s statements as “vague.”
During the campaign, El-Sisi has sought to cultivate an image of a man who is capable of stabilizing Egypt, tackling corruption and lowering food prices. He pledged to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood, the group that fielded Mursi to power and is boycotting this week’s election.
Interim authorities have classified the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, blaming it for much of the violence that has plagued Egypt since Mursi’s ouster, a charge the group denies. Authorities have killed hundreds of Mursi’s supporters since July and put thousands more on trial.
El-Sisi, surrounded by heavy security, cast his vote at a school in the Cairo district of Heliopolis. He said he expected the turnout to be “huge,” the state-run Middle East News Agency reported.
A high turnout could afford the mandate needed to take economic decisions such as cutting energy subsidies, a move that Mursi and Mubarak failed to make amid fears of a popular backlash. Almost 39 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots in the January referendum to pass a new constitution.
The costs of unrest and false starts since the 2011 uprising have been high. The currency has weakened to a record, fueling inflation, while power cuts have become standard. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have pledged about $15 billion in aid.
The largess has replenished foreign reserves, allowing the central bank to cut interest rates three times since August. The benchmark EGX 30 Index of equities has rallied more than 75 percent to the highest level in almost six years.
El-Sisi’s opponents, however, say his rule will be an extension of the autocratic military-led regimes that dominated Egypt from the 1952 coup until Mubarak’s ouster. The former defense chief has said he won’t increase the army’s influence over politics.
“It’s an election between a man who has good intentions, but little power, and a man who has the power to make us regret the day we elected him,” 32-year-old engineer Khaled Salama, a Sabahi supporter, said in the Cairo district of Nasr City before polls opened. “How do we make a choice based on that?”
The election comes as 54 percent of Egyptians view stability as more important than democracy, according to a Pew Research poll released last week. Fifty-nine percent of respondents said democracy is the preferred system, down from 66 percent a year earlier.
“What is happening is the apparent rise of conservatives in Egypt, and the question is whether the public is so fatigued or in a conservative mood or so fed up that they insist on something different,” Jon Alterman, head of the Mideast program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said by phone.
El-Sisi’s bet “is a combination of law enforcement, effective administration and gradual progress will be enough to square the circle,” Alterman said.