Polls opened on Monday in Egypt’s presidential election with the outcome —a second, four-year term for President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi—a foregone conclusion, in what is seen by critics as a signal of the country’s return to the authoritarian rule that prevailed since the 1950s.
A general-turned-president, el-Sissi is challenged by Moussa Mustafa Moussa, a little-known politician who joined the race in the last minute to spare the government the embarrassment of a one-candidate election after several hopefuls were forced out of the race or arrested.
Moussa has made no effort to challenge el-Sissi, who never mentioned his challenger once in public.
Authorities hope enough people -there are nearly 60 million eligible voters-will vote in the three-day balloting to give the election legitimacy.
Among the presidential hopefuls who had stepped forward earlier this year were some who might have attracted a sizable protest vote. But they were all either arrested or intimidated out of the race, making this the least competitive election since the 2011 popular uprising ousted longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak and raised hopes of democratic change.
El-Sissi cast his ballot as soon as the polls opened at 9 a.m. at a girls’ school in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. He made no comments, only shaking hands with election workers before he left.
There were no long lines of voters waiting in several Cairo districts, but past elections have shown many Egyptians prefer to wait for the afternoon or evening to vote. Authorities have not declared a holiday over the three-day vote. Footage aired by local television networks showed women dominating the early voters on Monday. They also showed festive scenes outside polling centers, with women and school children singing.
Tens of thousands of police and soldiers have been deployed to protect polling centers as well as key state installations during the election.
According to an Interior Ministry statement late Sunday, police killed six militants believed to be involved in a weekend bombing in the coastal city of Alexandria that killed two policemen. The statement said the militants belonged to a Muslim Brotherhood-linked group and that they were killed in a raid on their hideout north of Cairo.
Soldiers guarded the entrance from behind sandbags, weapons bristling at the ready, before polls opened at a polling station in Cairo’s Abdeen district.
Mohammed Ibrahim Ali, a retired engineer, patiently waited for the polls to open at Cairo’s bustling Sayda Zeinab, a middle-class neighborhood that is home to a much revered Islamic shrine.
“Even if there are 1,000 candidates, we will vote for el-Sissi,” he said, struggling to be heard over the patriotic songs blaring from nearby giant speakers. “He is the one who makes life great here.”
Ahmed Abdel-Atti, 58, a doorman in the same neighborhood, voiced skepticism. “Do you see any other candidates?” he said. A young man standing next to him added: “This is a done deal,” alluding to el-Sissi’s assured win. He refused to give his name, fearing reprisals.
During the official campaign period, instead of addressing any of the scores of rallies held by his supporters or appearing in TV ads, el-Sissi has opted for carefully scripted and televised functions. The former general has donned his military fatigues on recent occasions, highlighting the war on Islamic extremists and perhaps reminding voters that he led the military overthrow of a divisive Islamist president in the summer of 2013.
Many Egyptians welcomed the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi and the crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood group and for a time el-Sissi enjoyed a wave of popular support bordering on hysteria, with downtown shops selling chocolates with his portrait on them.
But that aura has faded over the last four years, which could explain a clampdown ahead of the election on the media and critics.
In the Sinai Peninsula, an insurgency that gained strength after Morsi’s overthrow and is now led by the Islamic State group has only grown more ferocious, with regular attacks on security forces and deadly church bombings. An assault on a mosque in November killed more than 300 people _ the worst terror attack in Egypt’s modern history.
The government has meanwhile enacted a series of long-overdue economic reforms _ including painful subsidy cuts and the floatation of the currency. That improved the investment climate and earned Egypt a $12 billion bailout loan from the International Monetary Fund. But the austerity measures sent prices soaring, exacting a heavy toll on ordinary Egyptians, especially the more than 25 percent living below the poverty line.
If there have been few public signs of discontent, it is likely because of a massive crackdown on dissent.
Thousands of Islamists and several leading secular activists have been jailed, and unauthorized protests have been outlawed. The media is dominated by virulently pro-government commentators and hundreds of websites have been blocked. Independent journalists have been arrested or deported. In late February, authorities expelled The Times of London correspondent Bel Trew, arresting her after she conducted an interview in Cairo’s central Shoubra district, saying she did not have valid accreditation and was filming without a permit.
El-Sissi, meanwhile, has worked to cultivate the image of a folksy populist, going on at length about his devotion to God, his reverence for his late mother, and his love for Egypt. In a one-hour puff piece TV interview, el-Sissi said he wished he had one or two trillion dollars of his own money that he could spend on modernizing the country.
In the interview, el-Sissi insisted that the lack of candidates was “completely not my fault.”
“Really, I swear, I wish there were one or two or even 10 of the best people and you would get to choose whoever you want,” he said. “We are just not ready.”