Egyptian election begins with President el-Sissi certain winner

Egyptian election begins with President el-Sissi certain winner
President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi

Polls opened today in Egypt's presidential election with the outcome, a second term for President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a foregone conclusion.

A general-turned-president, el-Sissi is challenged by 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.

Moussa has made no effort to challenge el-Sissi, who never mentioned his challenger once in public.

Authorities hope enough people - there are nearly 60 million eligible voters - will vote in the three-day balloting to give the election legitimacy.

A number of other presidential hopefuls had stepped forward earlier this year, including some who might have attracted a sizeable protest vote.

But they were all either arrested or intimidated out of the race, making this the least competitive election since the 2011 popular uprising ousted longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak and raised hopes of democratic change.

El-Sissi cast his ballot as soon as the polls opened at 9am at a girls' school in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis.

"The result of the election is already known, so a high turnout is the real prize here, which the regime will capitalise on," said Ziad Akl, a senior researcher at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

During the official campaign period, instead of addressing any of the scores of rallies held by his supporters or appearing in TV ads, el-Sissi opted for carefully scripted and televised functions.

The former general wore his military fatigues on recent occasions, highlighting the war on Islamic extremists and perhaps reminding voters that he led the military overthrow of a divisive Islamist president in the summer of 2013.

Many Egyptians welcomed the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi and the crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood group and for a time el-Sissi enjoyed a wave of popular support bordering on hysteria, with shops selling chocolates with his portrait on them.

Magdah Ahmed, 78, displays her inked finger after she casts her vote in Cairo. Photo: AP Photo/Amr Nabil
Magdah Ahmed, 78, displays her inked finger after she casts her vote in Cairo. Photo: AP Photo/Amr Nabil

But that aura has faded over the last four years, which could explain a clampdown ahead of the election on the media and critics.

In the Sinai Peninsula, an insurgency that gained strength after Morsi's overthrow and is now led by the Islamic State group has only grown more ferocious, with regular attacks on security forces and deadly church bombings.

An assault on a mosque in November killed more than 300 people, the worst terror attack in Egypt's modern history.

The government has meanwhile enacted a series of long-overdue economic reforms, including painful subsidy cuts and the flotation of the currency.

That improved the investment climate and earned Egypt a bailout loan from the International Monetary Fund.

But the austerity measures sent prices soaring, exacting a heavy toll on ordinary Egyptians, especially the more than 25% living below the poverty line.

If there have been few public signs of discontent, it is probably because of a massive crackdown on dissent.

In a televised interview, el-Sissi insisted that the lack of candidates was "completely not my fault."

"Really, I swear, I wish there were one or two or even 10 of the best people and you would get to choose whoever you want," he said. "We are just not ready."

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