CAIRO — It wasn’t so much an election as a victory party.
Egyptians on Monday began two days of presidential balloting, with a resounding win virtually assured for Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who presided over the removal of Egypt’s first democratically elected president from office nearly 11 months ago.
The el-Sissi camp hopes that a strong turnout will put a stamp of legitimacy on the rule of the former defense minister, a career military man who shed his uniform to run for president as a civilian. El-Sissi has been the country’s de facto leader since last summer’s popularly supported coup against Islamist Mohammed Morsi.
The disillusioned, for the most part, stayed away. In the Cairo neighborhood of Matareyah, which has seen repeated lethal clashes between security forces and Morsi supporters, one polling place down the street from a clothing store called “Big Man” was almost empty, while long lines stretched elsewhere.
El-Sissi’s sole opponent was leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, who waged a spirited campaign despite projections that he had almost no chance of winning.
Outside polling places, voters overwhelmingly declared themselves in favor of el-Sissi, and enormous campaign posters still dotted the streets. At a downtown school used for balloting, one voter who stood apart from the rest glanced around nervously before confiding that he planned to cast a ballot for “the right candidate.”
More typical was Bahaa Ibrahim, a middle-aged man who enthusiastically waved a large Egyptian flag outside a polling place in central Cairo.
“Egypt needs a leader who is able to lead,” he said, echoing widespread sentiment that el-Sissi would provide stability after three years of turmoil in the wake of the revolution that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
With the exception of Morsi, who was in office only a year before being ousted, Egypt has a decades-old tradition of leaders drawn from the ranks of the military. El-Sissi, who held the rank of field marshal when he retired in March, projects an authoritarian style leavened with sentimental declarations of love for the Egyptian people. The interim government has insisted that the vote is a milestone in a democratic transition.
If elected, el-Sissi faces an array of daunting problems, from a looming energy crunch to a faltering economy, to an Islamist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula. He has rejected any political accommodation with the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi’s movement, which called on backers to boycott the vote.
As the vote began, Egypt’s polarization was in plain view, written on the walls. Across the capital, one popular slogan that used English-language initials in place of el-Sissi’s name depicted him as “C.C. killer.” In countless locales, this scrawl was painted over and reapplied, painted over and reapplied.
Security was tight throughout the day, with military helicopters buzzing low over residential districts, tens of thousands of police officers on patrol, and some polling places secured with sandbags. But the army presence was not as overt as during Egypt’s last nationwide vote, a constitutional referendum.
Though the near-hysterical el-Sissi fervor that had characterized that election could still be found, more voters appeared to be taking a more pragmatic stance.
“I’m voting for him because I think he knows how to run institutions, governing bodies,” said Magda Mostafa, a part-time bank employee. “I only know Sabahi as a political activist; I don’t know what he can do. I want someone who can take charge.”
Official results are expected next week.
Special correspondent Amro Hassan contributed to this report.