CAIRO (AFP) - Egyptians go to the polls on Monday in a presidential election that ex-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who ousted the elected Islamist leader, is expected to easily win amid calls for stability.
The two-day election caps more than three years of political turmoil that has seen two presidents ousted following mass protests, thousands killed in clashes and militant attacks, and an economy left in tatters.
Polling stations open at 0600 GMT (2.00pm Singapore time) for 53 million registered voters. Mr Sisi is expected to trounce his only rival, leftist leader Hamdeen Sabbahi, amid calls for a strong leader who can restore stability in the Arab world's most populous country and shore up the economy.
But true democracy, the ideal millions rallied and fought for in a 2011 uprising that overthrew strongman Hosni Mubarak, will have to wait, perhaps for a couple of decades, Mr Sisi has said. Instead, he says he will work hard to restore the economy and fight "terrorism".
He has called for a high turnout in the election, billed by the military-installed authorities and the West as a milestone toward elected rule in the country of 86 million people. "You need to go down now more than any other time in (the country's) history. Go down, show to the entire world that there are 40, 45 (million) or even more" voters casting their ballots, Mr Sisi said as campaigning closed on Friday.
The military and police are being deployed heavily to secure polling stations across the country, which saw a surge in militant attacks after Mr Mursi's overthrow on July 3 last year.
The presidential poll will be followed by parliamentary elections later this year.
Mr Sisi's sole election rival Sabbahi, a veteran dissident, has vowed to defend the democratic aspirations of the 2011 revolt.
"We swear to God that symbols of corruption and despotism (from the Mubarak era) will not return," he said on Friday.
But indicating that he will not tolerate protests, Mr Sisi has raised fears that Egypt could see more repression than under Mubarak's regime. "What tourist would come to a country where we have demonstrations like this?" he asked Egyptian newspaper editors. "You write in the newspapers: 'No voice is louder than freedom of speech!' What is that?" he asked.
The interim authorities have justified the overthrow of Mr Mursi by saying the army heeded mass street protests against the divisive Islamist's one-year rule. The April 6 youth movement, which spearheaded the anti-Mubarak revolt and whose leader has been jailed, has called for a boycott of the election. Influential Egypt-born cleric and backer of the Muslim Brotherhood, Yusef al-Qaradawi, has also urged a boycott, saying Mr Sisi was "soaked from head to toe in the blood of innocents".
Since Mr Mursi's overthrow, police have cracked down on his Muslim Brotherhood, which had swept all elections since the fall of Mubarak.
Mr Sisi pledges that the Brotherhood, now blacklisted as a terrorist group, would cease to exist under his presidency. The crackdown has cost at least 1,400 lives since July, including hundreds of pro-Morsi protesters killed on a single day last August when security forces demolished their street camps in Cairo.