CAIRO (AFP) - Egyptians voted for a new president on Monday in an election expected to give a landslide victory to the ex-army chief who ousted the country’s first democratically-elected leader and crushed his Islamist movement.
The two-day election is the first since the frontrunner Abdel Fattah al-Sisi deposed Islamist president Mohamed Mursi in July, a move that unleashed the bloodiest violence in Egypt’s recent history.
Mr Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood is boycotting the vote, as are revolutionary youths who fear Mr Sisi is an autocrat in the making.
But the 59-year-old retired field marshall is expected to trounce his sole rival, leftist Hamdeen Sabbahi, amid widespread calls for stability.
Mr Sisi himself voted minutes after polling opened Monday amid a throng of jostling reporters and supporters. About 53 million people are eligible to vote.
“The entire world is watching us, how Egyptians are writing history and their future today and tomorrow,” Mr Sisi said.
“Egyptians must be reassured that tomorrow will be very beautiful and great,” he said, as supporters shook his hand and kissed his cheeks.
Many view the vote as a referendum on stability versus the freedoms promised by the Arab Spring-inspired popular uprising that ousted veteran strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Since the revolution, the country of 86 million people has been rocked by sporadic unrest and a tanking economy.
Mubarak’s successor, Mr Mursi, lasted one year in office, winning Egypt’s first democratic presidential poll only to quickly alienate many who held mass rallies demanding his resignation.
“We need someone who speaks in a determined and strong way. The Egyptian people are frightened by this and respect those who are like this,” said Mr Milad Yusef, a 29-year-old lawyer waiting to vote in Cairo.
Mr Yusef said he had voted for Sabbahi in the 2012 election that Mr Mursi won, but that he would now back Mr Sisi.
“We need someone strong, a military man,” he said.
Mr Sisi has said “true democracy” would take a couple of decades, and suggested he would not tolerate protests disrupting the economy.
He also pledged to eliminate the Brotherhood, which won every election following Mubarak’s overthrow after being banned for decades.
The Islamist movement is boycotting the election, along with the April 6 youth movement which spearheaded the anti-Mubarak revolt, and said on Sunday it would reject the outcome.
“Forgery will never grant legitimacy to a butcher nor will it lessen the determination of revolutionaries,” the Brotherhood said.
Voting in the pro-Mursi town of Kerdasa, 35km south-west of Cairo, was low as loyalists of Mr Mursi stayed indoors.
“Sisi killed youths and now he is grabbing power. This is the biggest evidence that (Mursi’s ouster) was a coup,” Mohamed Gamal, a law graduate who boycotted the vote, told AFP.
Police raided the town in September after 13 officers were killed following Mr Mursi’s overthrow.
The Brotherhood, now blacklisted as a terrorist group, has been decapitated in a police crackdown that has killed more than 1,400 people, including an estimated 700 protesters on one day in August.
Mr Mursi himself has been detained and put on trial.
“This election will not wipe the slate clean after 10 months of gross human rights violations,” Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement.
Hundreds of soldiers and policemen have also been killed in militant attacks since Mr Mursi’s overthrow, with the deadliest claimed by an Al-Qaeda-inspired group based in the restive Sinai Peninsula.
Mr Sisi has called for a high turnout in the election, billed by the military-installed authorities and the West as a milestone toward elected rule.
The poll will be followed by parliamentary elections later this year.
Mr Sisi’s sole rival Mr 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.
Mr Sabbahi’s campaign office denounced “various irregularities” during voting, including the arrest of one of its members in Cairo.
Egyptians trickled in to cast their ballots towards end of polling at 1800 GMT on Monday after long queues earlier in the day.Polling closed on Monday at 1800 GMT and will open at 0600 GMT on Tuesday.
Tuesday was declared as a public holiday to help people vote and polling was also extended by an hour to close at 1900 GMT, officials said.
Sisi has raised fears Egypt could see more repression than under Mubarak.
“What tourist would come to a country where we have demonstrations like this?” he said ahead of the election.