Egyptians began voting on Monday in a presidential election set to deliver an easy win for incumbent Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, with turnout the main focus after all serious opposition withdrew complaining of repression.
Polling stations will be open for three days and Sisi, a former military commander, has urged Egyptians to vote, hinting that he sees the election as a referendum on his first four-year term, rather than a serious democratic contest.
Sisi, an ally of the United States, faces only one challenger who is a long-time supporter of the president.
Many Egyptians, as well as the country’s Arab and Western allies, see him as vital to stability as unrest since 2011 has hurt the economy. However, his critics say he has presided over Egypt’s worst crackdown on dissent and describe the vote as a charade.
Sisi, 63, who led the military’s overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically-elected president Mohamed Mursi in 2013, has cast his bid for a second term as a vote for stability and security. He is trying to defeat Islamist insurgents in the Sinai Peninsula and complete a series of mega-projects inaugurated with great fanfare since he came to power.
In early hours of the voting, witnesses said turnout was slow but on a normal business day most Egyptians are expected to vote after working hours.
A lower-than-expected turnout could suggest Sisi lacks the mandate to take more of the tough steps needed to revive the economy, which struggled after the 2011 revolution drove away tourists and foreign investors, both sources of hard currency.
Authorities have urged people to vote, ramping up nationalist rhetoric and painting participation as helping the fight against Islamists and other unspecified enemies.
“Your vote is a bullet in the heart of your enemy,” Monday’s front page of the state-owned al-Gomhouria newspaper read. Prime Minister Sherif Ismail told state TV as he voted: “People must turn out and participate with force”.
A 76-year-old voter, Saad Shahata, said at a polling station in Monofiya province north of Cairo: “We’re coming to support President Sisi. Anyone who doesn’t participate in the vote is a traitor.”
In Cairo’s upscale Heliopolis neighborhood and Zamalek, areas with strong support for Sisi and the military, nationalist songs blared out and groups of men waved Egyptian flags as they cheered and danced. A child sang the anthem of an Egyptian special forces unit.
Dozens of people queued before polls opened, but only trickled in afterwards.
One of the few young voters at a Heliopolis polling station, Zeina Sherif, said she saw casting her vote as symbolic support for Sisi. “Sisi is working on projects that we should give him a chance to finish,” the 20-year-old said.
These projects include an expansion of the Suez Canal and a new capital being built east of Cairo. These will in time improve the economy and people’s lives, he says.
But critics say austerity measures have hurt his popularity, including a currency devaluation tied to an International Monetary Fund loan which left most Egyptians worse off. Many see little benefit from large projects and the harsh fiscal reforms.
Rights groups accuse Sisi of muzzling opponents, activists and independent media. Courts have sentenced hundreds of supporters of Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood to death since 2013.
The president’s sole challenger is Moussa Mostafa Moussa, a Sisi supporter widely seen as a dummy candidate. Moussa has said he hopes Sisi beats him but rejects charges he is being used to present a false sense of competition. The electoral commission says it will ensure voting is fair and transparent.
Several opposition figures called for a boycott of the vote after all major opposition campaigns withdrew, saying repression had cleared the field of credible challengers.
Sisi’s top opponent, former military chief of staff Sami Anan, was arrested and halted his presidential bid after the army accused him of running for office without permission.
Even before campaigning officially began, the United Nations, rights groups and opposition figures criticized the run-up as compromised by arrests and intimidation of opponents.
In a letter to U.S. President Donald Trump’s foreign policy team, the Working Group on Egypt, a bipartisan group of U.S. foreign policy specialists, said the “sham election” would take place against a backdrop of massive human rights abuses.
Sisi has said he will not seek a third term, but critics expect him to remove a two-presidential term limit.
He won nearly 97 percent of the vote in 2014, but less than half of eligible Egyptians voted, even though the election was extended to three days.