Egypt votes for president, with el-Sissi sure winner

CAIRO -- Egyptians began voting Monday in an election virtually guaranteeing another term for President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who faced only a token opponent in balloting resembling the referendums held by autocrats for decades before the Arab Spring briefly raised hopes of democratic change.

El-Sissi's only challenger was Moussa Mustafa Moussa, a little-known politician who joined the race at the last minute to spare the government the embarrassment of a one-candidate election after several hopefuls were forced out or arrested.

Authorities hope enough of Egypt's nearly 60 million eligible voters will participate in the three-day election to give it legitimacy. Local media, which are dominated by pro-government commentators, have portrayed voting as a national obligation and the only way to prevent foreigners from sowing instability.

There were only modest lines at most polling places Monday, and some were empty for most of the day.

Officials overseeing four polling centers in the greater Cairo area said turnout hovered around a lowly 7 percent by 6 p.m., three hours before their scheduled close for the day. They said they expected a dramatic increase on the final day Wednesday.

El-Sissi, a general who led the 2013 military overthrow of Egypt's first freely elected president, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi, voted at a school in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis as soon as the polls opened at 9 a.m. He made no comment before heading for a meeting with his campaign team.

Moussa, who supported el-Sissi until he joined the race, made no effort to mount a challenge, and the president never mentioned him once in public.

Replying to a reporter's question about his chances of winning, Moussa said: "It all depends on your prayers and your votes."

"Today we want the people to come out and vote. ... It doesn't matter who wins as long as Egypt remains safe," he said after casting his ballot.

Some potential candidates might have attracted a sizable protest vote, but they were all either arrested or intimidated into withdrawing, making this the least competitive election since the 2011 uprising ousting longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

The vote came amid the harshest crackdown on dissent in Egypt's modern history, with thousands of Islamists as well as several prominent secular activists in jail. Unauthorized protests are banned, most critical voices in the local media have been silenced, and hundreds of websites, including those of independent media and rights groups, have been blocked.

"I am not participating in this show because we all know who will win the vote," said Ahmed, a gas station attendant in Cairo's twin city of Giza.

"Nobody dares to speak up anymore, and if I go out and protest, I will either be killed with a bullet or thrown in jail," said the 30-year-old, who asked only his first name be used because of those fears.

Local TV showed festive scenes outside some polling stations, with women and children waving flags, singing nationalistic songs and dancing.

The national election commission reported a large turnout in Cairo, Alexandria and northern Sinai, the epicenter of an insurgency led by the Islamic State group, but gave no figures. Pro-government media dubbed the vote a "democratic feast."

A shopkeeper in downtown dismissed the election, saying the world was laughing at Egypt.

Added a young man named Ahmed, who was smoking a water pipe at a cafe in central Cairo: "I'm not lazy or apathetic. I'm intentionally skipping this one."

Both asked that their full names not be used, fearing reprisals.