Egypt heads to polls to pick president

Former army chief contends with leftist politician Hamdeen Sabbahi in a vote Sisi is largely expected to win

Eman El-Shenawi

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Egyptians are voting on Monday for their next president, in the first day of polls expected to see former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi win by a landslide as he contends with leftist political figure Hamdeen Sabbahi.

The voting was mired by the killing of a Sisi campaigner in the capital. Unidentified gunmen opened fire on the man in the Manial district of the capital.

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Widely regarded Egypt's de facto leader since he led the ouster of Islamist President Mohammad Mursi last July, Sisi has been riding a wave of popularity following mass protests that had called for Mursi’s ouster.

Since leading the ouster of Islamist President Mohammad Mursi last July, Sisi has been widely regarded as Egypt's de facto leader, riding a wave of popularity following mass protests that had called for Mursi’s ouster.

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While he has acknowledged the scale of Egypt's problems, including an energy crisis and Islamist militant violence that has driven away foreign investors and tourists, he has refused to publish his policies.

The mere admiration of Sisi may not be enough to keep those who voted for him happy, however.

“For others, admiration for Sisi is enough, but of course opinions change,” Walter Armbrust, a Hourani Fellow and University Lecturer in Modern Middle East Studies at Oxford University, told Al Arabiya News on Monday.

“So there is no reason to think that the true believers will stay that way without some sort of continuing strategy on Sisi's part.

“After the election Sisi will have to either start talking about real political issues, in which case more people will begin to openly question him, or he will have to maintain his popular enthusiasm by continuing to raise the prospect of security threats and dark foreign conspiracies. The latter scenario is more likely,” Armbrust added.

According to recent interviews, Sisi appears to have been trying to prepare the country for some sort of austerity program.

“The energy subsidies are crippling to any economic strategy, and therefore to any political agenda,” said Armbrust.

Still, his supporters regard him as a central figure in the country, conjuring hopes of stability for its future.

“For many no doubt a vote for Sisi is a vote to end upheaval caused by the revolution more than an expression of genuine enthusiasm for the man,” Armbrust said.

His opponents, mostly in the Islamist opposition, blame him for robbing Egypt's first freely-elected leader of power.

In 2012, Sabbahi finished third in the election which brought Mursi to power. He says he was jailed 17 times under former presidents Anwar Sadat and Mubarak and is a journalist by training.

The veteran dissident is founder of al-Karama (Dignity) party, which was refused registration under Mubarak's regime.

Sabbahi proudly brandishes the ideals of the 2011 revolution and frequently invokes the slogans of "bread, freedom and social justice" chanted by millions when Mubarak was ousted.

Egypt election officials said last week Sisi won over 94 percent of the expat votes in the country's presidential polls. Although the result appears a foregone conclusion, a big turnout would be seen as a strong mandate for Sisi's rule.

“For supporters and critics of Sisi, this election is viewed more as a referendum of approval for his continued rule than anything

else,” Justin Dargin, a geopolitical expert on the Middle East, told Al Arabiya News.

Security on high alert

Security forces across the country were on high alert over fears of any potential militant attacks, as seen in recent months. Egypt has launched a wide-ranging campaign against militants in the Sinai after they stepped up attacks on police and army targets in Cairo and other cities.

“Militant groups have threatened acts in the past, and the current military operations have not completely rooted them out. Just as in Iraq and Afghanistan, militant groups tried and failed to disrupt the elections. Therefore, we will likely see some terrorist activities, but they certainly will not undermine the upcoming elections,” Dargin said.

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Earlier on Monday, security forces use teargas to disperse Mursi supporters in the town of Kerdasa, located south of Greater Cairo, the state-run al-Ahram newspaper reported.

Kerdasa took its place in history on August 14 last year, when a mob attacked a police station and killed 13 officers, mutilating their corpses.

According to al-Ahram, the Mursi supporters had “attempted to prevent voters from casting their ballots” in Kerdasa.

Also on Monday morning, Egyptian police denied a bomb went off outside a polling station as voting in presidential elections began on Monday, after state television reported a small blast.

"It was an exhaust pipe backfiring," Brigadier General Ayman Helmy told Agence France Presse.

(With AFP and Reuters)