Egyptians headed to the polls Monday in what critics describe as a sham election that is all but certain to bring President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi to a second term leading the Arab world’s most populous country, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East.

CAIRO —

Credible challengers either were arrested or dropped out citing intimidation and other pressures ahead of the presidential election — Egypt’s third since the 2011 Arab Spring uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak. Sissi’s only opponent entered the race at the 11th hour and is widely viewed as a stooge running to give a democratic veneer to the election and prevent the vote from becoming a referendum on the president’s capabilities.

The vote has further polarized the country.

On Sunday night, a group of Sissi supporters rode through downtown Cairo in a pickup truck, waving Egyptian flags as patriotic music blared through loudspeakers, urging people to vote. Hardly anyone on the streets paid attention.

“In Egypt, there is no democracy,” said Abdelrahman, a taxi driver, shaking his head as he passed the truck. “Democracy in Egypt only comes with the gun.” Fearing for his safety, he asked to be identified only by his first name.

Egyptians began arriving Monday morning at polling stations across the capital. In Cairo’s Haram neighborhood, some voting sites had about 15 people waiting in line. Some voters waved national flags or wore T-shirts emblazoned with Sissi’s image. Everyone interviewed said they would vote for Sissi.

“Of course I voted for Sissi. Is there anyone else but him?” said Samir Abdelfattah, 80, a retired educational worker. “The man is working and doing the best he can.”

With Sissi running unchallenged, voter turnout will be a key barometer of whether he receives a credible mandate from Egyptians for a second term. Most analysts say a turnout of at least 40 to 45 percent is essential. Over the past few weeks, many Egyptians have said in interviews that they do not intend to cast ballots. With voting unfolding over three days, the final turnout is far from clear.

Sissi’s expected victory appears likely to tighten his grip on the government, politics and society, making him perhaps the most controlling leader in Egypt’s modern history. But it will also raise the expectations of Egypt’s more than 100 million people, most of them living in poverty. While the economy is showing signs of a rebound, severe austerity measures, rising prices and lowered subsidies have worsened the lives of a majority of Egyptians, including the middle class.

At a Sissi campaign rally last week, few cared that there was no credible election opponent or wanted to discuss Sissi’s political platform. Most came in the hope that Sissi would improve their lives.

“All I wish for is that he creates new jobs for the youth,” said Azziza Badawy, a 30-year-old housewife.

Sabreen Sayed, 37, said: “I wish that after he wins, he reduces the prices, especially of food. We now do not eat meat at all. We love Sissi, but they need to take care of the prices.”

On hundreds of billboards across the capital, Sissi is portrayed as Egypt’s benevolent leader, often dressed in a Western-style suit, his face serene or smiling. There are few billboards of his challenger, Moussa Mostafa Moussa, an obscure politician who has barely campaigned. He was, after all, among Sissi’s most loyal supporters and has said he wants Sissi to continue as president.

The message is clear for Egyptians: Sissi is the only option to fulfill their hopes.

Last week, in an interview on a local television network, Sissi dismissed the notion that he had forced out any credible challenger to his rule.

“It is not my fault,” he said. “I swear to God I wished there would have been more candidates for people to choose who they want. But they were not ready yet. There is no shame in this.”

Sissi’s policies have contributed significantly to that absence of political readiness.

He led the military that ousted Egypt’s elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, in a 2013 coup. A year later, Sissi was elected president and promptly jailed thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members and others who posed a threat to his rule.

Over the past year, the repression has deepened. Hundreds of websites viewed as critical of the regime have been blocked, and travel bans and other repressive measures have been imposed on activists. Numerous opponents have been jailed or “forcibly disappeared,” while extrajudicial killings are increasing, human rights groups say.

The United States and other Western powers have remained publicly silent. President Trump considers Sissi a friend and has publicly indicated a willingness to overlook human rights and democracy concerns in the Middle East to support key allies.

Since December, authorities have pushed out all credible challengers. Two former military commanders — Lt. Gen. Sami Annan and Col. Ahmed Konsowa — were incarcerated after being accused of breaking military regulations by intending to run for office. Ahmed Shafik, a former prime minister and air force chief, was reportedly intimidated and forced to withdraw.

Anwar Sadat, the nephew of his namesake, the Egyptian president assassinated in 1981, said he pulled out after facing attacks by government media and becoming fearful for his party supporters’ safety. Human rights lawyer Khaled Ali also cited intimidation and safety concerns in deciding not to run.

Moussa has denied he is a “puppet” of Sissi, a label used by many Egyptians. What is clear is that he has not made any serious effort to challenge Sissi, even refusing to debate him. He told a state-owned television network that he is “not here to challenge the president.”

Despite eliminating his opponents, Sissi was not taking any chances in this election.

In February, he launched a major military offensive against Islamist militants in the northern Sinai and Western Desert. As Egypt grapples with a virulent Islamic State affiliate and an emerging al-Qaeda faction, maintaining stability and security are the pillars of Sissi’s efforts to attract support from Egyptians.

The offensive was also a way to reflect his strength and to remind Egyptians that the military is still the country’s most powerful force. Sissi even wore his old military uniform at a ceremony last month.

At the polling stations in the Haram enclave, Sissi’s supporters said his efforts to combat terrorism and bring stability to Egypt were the key reasons for their votes.

“We need security,” Saed Ibrahim, 59, a cleric, said after casting his vote for Sissi, adding: “The operation in Sinai now is the best that has ever been launched so far. If we defeat terrorism in Sinai, we will be safe in our homes everywhere. This is why I decided to vote to put an end to terrorism.”

Foreign news media outlets have also been targeted for writing negative reports about the regime. The BBC was publicly attacked for a documentary on forced disappearances. A Times of London reporter, Bel Trew, was expelled from the country last month for unclear reasons, even as Britain’s foreign minister, Boris Johnson, tried to intervene on her behalf privately.