CAIRO • Egyptians voted yesterday in a presidential election set to deliver an easy win for incumbent President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, with turnout the main focus after all serious opposition withdrew, complaining of repression.
Mr Sisi has urged Egyptians to vote, hinting that he sees the election as a referendum on his rule rather than a serious democratic contest. Polling stations will be open for three days in an apparent effort to garner as many votes as possible for him.
Many Egyptians as well as the country's Arab and Western allies, including Washington, see Mr Sisi as vital to stability as unrest since 2011 has hurt the economy. But his critics say he has presided over Egypt's worst crackdown on dissent and describe the vote as a charade.
Mr Sisi, 63, a former general who led the military's overthrow of Egypt's first democratically elected president Mohamed Mursi in 2013, 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.
The authorities have ramped up nationalist rhetoric and painted participation in the election as helping the fight against Islamists and other unspecified enemies. The state-run Al-Gomhouria newspaper's front page yesterday read: "Your vote is a bullet in the heart of your enemy."
A lower-than-expected turnout could suggest Mr Sisi lacks a mandate to take more of the tough steps needed to revive the economy, which has struggled after the 2011 revolution drove away tourists and foreign investors, both sources of hard currency.
Those who voted early yesterday praised Mr Sisi for ousting Islamists from power five years ago, saying Egypt would otherwise have suffered the same fate as some Arab nations at the hands of extremists.
Tight security was enforced, with police and soldiers deployed at polling stations a day after a bomb attack targeted a security chief in the northern city of Alexandria.
"Sisi is working on projects that we should give him a chance to finish," said Ms Zeina Sherif, 20, one of the few young voters at a Heliopolis polling station. The 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, Mr Sisi has said.
But critics say austerity measures have hurt his popularity. These include a currency devaluation tied to an International Monetary Fund loan which has left most Egyptians worse off. Many see little benefit from large projects and the harsh fiscal reforms.
Rights groups accuse Mr Sisi of muzzling opponents, activists and independent media. Courts have sentenced hundreds of supporters of Mr Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood to death since 2013.
Mr Sisi's sole challenger is Mr Moussa Mostafa Moussa, who is a supporter of the President and widely seen as a dummy candidate. Mr Moussa has said he hopes Mr Sisi beats him, but rejects charges that he is being used to present a false sense of competition.
Several politicians called for a boycott of the vote weeks ago after all major opposition campaigns withdrew, saying repression had cleared the field of credible challengers. Mr Sisi's original top opponent, former military chief of staff Sami Anan, was arrested and had his presidential bid halted after the army accused him of running for office without permission.
Mr Sisi has said he will not seek a third term, but critics expect him to remove the limit of two presidential terms. He won nearly 97 per cent of the vote in 2014, but less than half of eligible Egyptians voted, even though the election was extended to three days.