CAIRO — Egyptians cast ballots Monday for a new president in an election widely expected to secure a resounding victory for military strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, one that will likely further entrench the army’s decades-long rule over the country.
Monday marked the first of two days of voting in which just two candidates, including former defense minister Sissi and leftist politician Hamdeen Sabbahi, are vying for the nation’s top office after Egypt’s first democratically elected president was ousted by the military last year.
Many Egyptians view the ex-army chief as a strong, charismatic candidate capable of ushering in stability after years of political and economic turmoil. But Sissi, who led the army coup against Islamist President Mohamed Morsi last summer, has also been criticized for presiding over a widespread crackdown against dissidents, including the Muslim Brotherhood group that backed Morsi’s presidency.
On Monday, Sabbahi’s campaign headquarters said that four of its delegates had been detained or arrested by security forces at polling stations nationwide. The campaign said the arrests were part of “systematic violations” they had documented by police and army officers during the voting process.
“I do not believe these elections are legitimate,” said university student Salsabeel al-Gharbawi, 21. A Cairo court recently sentenced Gharbawi, a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, still Egypt’s largest opposition group, to four years in prison for protesting on her university campus in December. From her home in the east Cairo neighborhood of Alf Maskan, Gharbawi said she was boycotting the elections.
The grassroots Tamarod (“Rebel”) group that led the revolt against Morsi last June said Monday that one of its members and a Sissi campaign coordinator had been shot dead in the Giza province near Cairo, highlighting the insecurity many voters here say prompted them to support Sissi. Army helicopters patrolled the skies over the capital, flying low over polling stations to cheers from pro-military crowds.
“We came here today for Egypt, because we love Egypt,” said 59-year-old Reda Nasr, a voter in the east Cairo neighborhood of Matareya. A dozen women outside this polling station flanked Nasr, ululating in support of the field marshal.
“Sissi is the leader of Egypt and of the Arab world,” Nasr said. “He will bring us security, stability and peace.”
But while the mood was celebratory among Sissi backers, there was little room for public dissent at the voting stations. In one instance, pro-Sissi residents in Matareya insulted and chased a man who said he had voted for Sabbahi.
“I am proud of my decision,” Matareya resident and engineer, Abdel Karim Mahmoud, 55, said. “The people are unified for Sissi!” one man yelled at Mahmoud as a throng of angry fellow voters descended on him. Army and police guarding the polling station watched passively from afar.
“I didn’t have a problem with the way Morsi governed,” Cairo voter Mohammed Ali, said from the same polling station.
The army’s ouster of the Islamist leader was backed by a wide swathe of the population.
“But we have moved on,” Ali said. “It’s time for the military to control the country.”
Sharaf Al-Hourani contributed to this report.