Egyptians are trooping to the polls this week, seemingly determined to return a military strongman to the presidential palace. Retired field marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sissi appears poised to easily defeat his lone challenger, Hamdeen Sabahi, a long-time leftist politician, in voting that wraps up Tuesday evening.
“The entire world is watching us,” Mr. el-Sissi said as supporters shook his hand and kissed his cheeks when he went to cast his ballot. “Egyptians must be reassured that tomorrow will be very beautiful and great.”
The election, Egypt’s third in two and a half years, comes 11 months after the military, led by then-General el-Sissi, ousted the previously elected president, Mohammed Morsi. Mr. Morsi, a leader from the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood movement, remains in prison as he and other Brothers stand trial for alleged capital offences.
Mr. Morsi’s single year in office was coloured by heavy-handed tactics to enforce his will.
Mr. el-Sissi, who had been appointed defence chief by Mr. Morsi, encouraged Egyptians to take to the streets last June to show their disapproval of the administration. Insisting he sought no political power for himself, Mr. el-Sissi then “bowed to public pressure,” as he put it, and moved quickly to remove Mr. Morsi. What followed was a brutal crackdown on the 85-year-old Islamist group in which more than 1,000 a thousand people were killed and several thousand arrested.
The public’s gratitude was palpable, and the diminutive general became a larger-than-life political hero. To a population starved for law and order and desperate for a return to a modest but growing economy, the decisive military chief was just the kind of leader the people craved.
In late March, Mr. el-Sissi, who had been elevated to the rank of field marshal by the administration he himself appointed, declared he was once again responding to public demand and would run for office. For “security reasons,” however, he chose to conduct his brief campaign for president from a Cairo television studio where he reached voters only through a number of interviews with mostly local reporters.
Using the slogan “Long Live Egypt” Mr. el-Sissi was short on specifics, but he vowed to place national stability ahead of personal freedoms.
“The Egyptian police need complete support in order to restore security in the country,” he said. As well, the ex-military chief said he would maintain the controversial law that limits protests and would apply it to labour disputes as well.
He advised the media to “get behind a strategic goal and protect the Egyptian state” and warned them against critical reporting. “It is better to whisper in the ears of officials about a problem than to make big noise about it,” he said.
As for democratic reforms, there’s no big rush – real democracy will take at least 25 years, he said.
Both presidential candidates agreed there is no future for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, though Mr. el-Sissi was more emphatic: He vowed to “finish off” the Brotherhood once and for all.
He also declared there will be no other Islamic-oriented political parties, a vow that appears to include the Salafist Nour party, even though it has come out in support of him.
Egypt’s Salafists, who did well in parliamentary elections two years ago, hope to improve their standing in elections later this year.
Mr. el-Sissi is supported by the Coptic Christian tycoon Naguib Sawiris and his Free Egyptians Party, as well as by former foreign minister and presidential candidate Amr Moussa and the Tamarod movement that spearheaded last year’s anti-Morsi demonstrations.
Mohamed ElBaradei and the popular political scientist Amr Hamzawy are in Mr. Sabahi’s corner. The Muslim Brotherhood, along with the April 6 youth movement that led the protests against Hosni Mubarak in 2011, urged followers to boycott what they call a democratic farce.
Some 53 million Egyptians are eligible to vote; turnout will be a big factor in evaluating what amounts to a plebiscite on the former general. The Brotherhood and many who supported the overthrow of Mr. Mubarak hope to demonstrate widespread disaffection with Mr. el-Sissi.
On Monday, the flow of voters, though steady, seemed below that of previous elections, and there were no last-minute rushes forcing the polls to remain open late.