Egypt begins voting for president, with el-Sissi assured win

FILE - In this Oct. 24, 2017 file photo, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi attends a military ceremony in the courtyard at the Hotel des Invalides in Paris, France. On March 26-28, 2018 a Presidential election will be held in Egypt, with el-Sissi virtually guaranteed to win. (Charles Platiau, Pool via AP, File)
A man shows his inked finger after voting during the first day of the presidential election inside a polling station in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, March 26, 2018. 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. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Egyptian military soldiers stand guard during the first day of the presidential election in front of a polling station in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, March 26, 2018. Egyptians head to the polls on Monday but the presidential election this time is not about who wins — that was settled long ago — but about how many people bother to cast ballots. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
A woman casts her vote during the first day of the presidential election at a polling station in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, March 26, 2018. Egyptians head to the polls on Monday but the presidential election this time is not about who wins — that was settled long ago — but about how many people bother to cast ballots. Arabic reads, "choose one candidate, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Moussa Mustafa Moussa". (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
Magdah Ahmed, 78, displays her inked finger after she casts her vote at a polling station during the first day of the presidential election at a polling station in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, March 26, 2018. Polls have opened in Egypt’s presidential election with the outcome _ a second term for President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi _ a foregone conclusion. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
A woman casts her ballot during the first day of the presidential election at a polling station in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, March 26, 2018. 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. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
A military solider guarding a polling station kisses a girl during the first day of voting in the presidential election in the village of Kerdasa, Giza, Egypt, Monday, March 26, 2018. 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. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
People chat and smoke traditional water pipes under an election campaign banner for Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, with Arabic that reads, "for the sake of the nation security", in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, March 24, 2018. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the general-turned-president, will stand for re-election next week against Moussa, a little-known politician who has made no effort to challenge him. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
A military solider guarding a polling station kisses a girl during the first day of voting in the presidential election in the village of Kerdasa, Giza, Egypt, Monday, March 26, 2018. 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. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
In this photo released by the Egyptian Presidency, Entissar Amer, the wife of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi votes in the presidential election, in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, March 26, 2018. Polls opened on Monday in Egypt's presidential election with the outcome — a second, four-year term for 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. (Egyptian Presidency via AP)
Women pose for a photograph after voting during the first day of the presidential election outside a polling site in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, March 26, 2018. 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. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Women line up to enter a polling station during the first day of the presidential election in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, March 26, 2018. Egyptians head to the polls on Monday but the presidential election this time is not about who wins — that was settled long ago — but about how many people bother to cast ballots. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
Egyptian presidential candidate Moussa Mustafa Moussa holds a ballot before casting his vote during the first day of the presidential election, at a polling station, in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, March 26, 2018. 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. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Egyptian women and children wave national flags as they wait in line to vote during the first day of the presidential election in front of a polling station in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, March 26, 2018. 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. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Voters sing national songs as they prepare to enter a polling station during the first day of the presidential election in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, March 26, 2018. 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. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
Egyptian men wave national flags as they wait in line to vote during the first day of the presidential election in front of a polling station, in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, March 26, 2018. Egyptians head to the polls on Monday but the presidential election this time is not about who wins — that was settled long ago — but about how many people bother to cast ballots. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
In this photo released by the Egyptian Presidency, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi follows the voting in the presidential election at his campaign headquarters, in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, March 26, 2018. Polls opened on Monday in Egypt's presidential election with the outcome — a second, four-year term for 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. (Egyptian Presidency via AP)
Egyptian men wave national flags as they wait in line to vote during the first day of the presidential election in front of a polling site in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, March 26, 2018. Egyptians head to the polls on Monday but the presidential election this time is not about who wins — that was settled long ago — but about how many people bother to cast ballots. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
A woman casts her vote during the first day of the presidential election at a polling station in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, March 26, 2018. Egyptians head to the polls on Monday but the presidential election this time is not about who wins — that was settled long ago — but about how many people bother to cast ballots. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
An army officer checks voters bags as they prepare to enter a polling station during the first day of the presidential election in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, March 26, 2018. 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. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
A woman votes during the first day of the presidential election at a polling station in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, March 26, 2018. Egyptians head to the polls on Monday but the presidential election this time is not about who wins — that was settled long ago — but about how many people bother to cast ballots. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

CAIRO — Egyptians began voting Monday in an election that virtually guaranteed another term for President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who faced only a token opponent in balloting that resembled the referendums held by autocrats for decades before the Arab Spring briefly raised hopes of democratic change.

El-Sissi's only challenger was Moussa Mustafa Moussa, a little-known politician who joined the race at the last minute to spare the government the embarrassment of a one-candidate election after several hopefuls were forced out or arrested.

Authorities hope enough of Egypt's nearly 60 million eligible voters will participate in the three-day election to give it legitimacy. Local media, which are dominated by pro-government commentators, have portrayed voting as an obligation and the only way to prevent foreigners from sowing instability.

Most polling places had only modest lines Monday, and some were empty for most of the day.

Officials overseeing four polling centers in the greater Cairo area said turnout hovered around a lowly 7 percent by 6 p.m., three hours before their scheduled close for the day. They said they expected a dramatic increase on the final day Wednesday.

El-Sissi, a general who led the 2013 military overthrow of Egypt's first freely elected president, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi, voted at a school in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis as soon as the polls opened at 9 a.m. He made no comment before heading for a meeting with his campaign team.

Moussa, who supported el-Sissi until he joined the race, made no effort to mount a challenge, and the president never mentioned him once in public.

Replying to a reporter's question about his chances of winning, Moussa said: "It all depends on your prayers and your votes."

"Today we want the people to come out and vote. ... It doesn't matter who wins as long as Egypt remains safe," he said after casting his ballot.

Some potential candidates might have attracted a sizable protest vote, but they were all either arrested or intimidated into withdrawing, making this the least competitive election since the 2011 uprising that ousted longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

The vote came amid the harshest crackdown on dissent in Egypt's modern history, with thousands of Islamists as well as several prominent secular activists in jail. Unauthorized protests are banned, most critical voices in the local media have been silenced, and hundreds of websites, including those of independent media and rights groups, have been blocked.

"I am not participating in this show because we all know who will win the vote," said Ahmed, a gas station attendant in Cairo's twin city of Giza.

"Nobody dares to speak up anymore, and if I go out and protest, I will either be killed with a bullet or thrown in jail," said the 30-year-old, who asked that only his first name be used because of those fears.

Local TV showed festive scenes outside some polling stations, with women and children waving flags, singing nationalistic songs and dancing.

The national election commission reported a large turnout in Cairo, Alexandria and northern Sinai, the epicenter of an insurgency led by the Islamic State group, but gave no figures. Pro-government media dubbed the vote a "democratic feast."

A shopkeeper in downtown dismissed the election, saying the world was laughing at Egypt.

Added a young man named Ahmed, who was smoking a water pipe at a café in central Cairo: "I'm not lazy or apathetic. I'm intentionally skipping this one."

Both asked that their full names not be used, fearing reprisals.

Tens of thousands of police and soldiers were deployed for the vote. Authorities said Sunday that police had killed six militants believed to be involved in a weekend bombing in the coastal city of Alexandria in which two policemen died.

Retired engineer Mohammed Ibrahim Ali patiently waited for the polls to open in Cairo's bustling Sayda Zeinab neighborhood, home to a famous Islamic shrine.

"Even if there are 1,000 candidates, we will vote for el-Sissi," he said, struggling to be heard over patriotic songs blaring from speakers. "He is the one who makes life great here."

Ahmed Abdel-Atti, a 58-year-old doorman in the same neighborhood, voiced skepticism.

"Do you see any other candidates?" he asked.

El-Sissi opted for carefully scripted televised appearances during the campaign. He donned military fatigues on recent occasions, highlighting the war on Islamic extremists and his past career as an army general.

Many Egyptians had welcomed the military overthrow of Morsi, whose divisive rule had brought mass protests, and the subsequent crackdown on the Brotherhood. For a time, el-Sissi enjoyed a wave of popular support bordering on hysteria, but that aura has faded in the last four years.

In the Sinai Peninsula, the insurgency that gained strength after Morsi's overthrow 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 such attack in Egypt's modern history.

Meanwhile, the government has 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.

"I was a wholehearted (el-Sissi) supporter, but not anymore," said a man who recently lost his job in a telecommunications company and now works at a Cairo gas station. "Yes, there are big projects, but he takes from us, the poor, not from them, the rich. We are the people who are living day to day."

He also asked that his full name not be used, fearing trouble from authorities.

Khaled Abdel-Lateef, who sells fresh juice in downtown Cairo, struck an upbeat note, saying authorities need more time.

"We need to be patient," he said. "The good things will come. At the very least, we have security."

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