BEIRUT

Middle East

Sisi closes in on presidency as government seeks bigger turnout

Presidential candidate and former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) gestures to his supporters as he arrives with his bodyguards at a polling station to cast his vote during the presidential election in Cairo May 26, 2014. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

CAIRO: Former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is expected to emerge from a second and final day of voting on Tuesday as Egypt's next head of state, returning the presidency to a military man as hopes for democracy fade three years after Hosni Mubarak's downfall.

Seeking to boost turnout that appeared low on the first day of voting, the government declared Tuesday a holiday and extended voting by an hour so that polls would close at 10 p.m. (1900 GMT). The central bank also declared a bank holiday.

With victory for Sisi a foregone conclusion, the turnout is seen as crucial to shoring up the legitimacy of the field marshal who toppled Egypt's first freely elected head of state, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammad Morsi last July.

The limited showing contrasted with parliamentary and presidential elections held after Mubarak's overthrow, when voter lines were measured in the hundreds and stretched far into the streets leading to the polling stations.

Sisi himself had called for a record turnout.

He enjoys backing from Egyptians worn down by three years of turmoil since Mubarak's downfall in 2011. While the Islamists demonise him as the mastermind of a coup, his backers see him as a hero for toppling Morsi after mass protests against his rule.

Polling stations were guarded by soldiers, some in black face masks, with plain clothes police also in evidence.

Sisi faces only one challenger: the leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, who came third in the 2012 election won by Morsi. Other candidates who contested the election won by Morsi did not run, saying the climate was not conducive to democracy following a crackdown on Islamist and other opposition groups.

The Brotherhood, which came first in both parliamentary and presidential polls held after Mubarak's downfall, has been driven underground in a campaign of repression that has killed hundreds of its followers and landed thousands more in prison.

In a move that has alienated many liberal Egyptians, secular dissidents have also been jailed, often for breaking a new protest law criticised as a threat to free assembly.

Sabahi's campaign described turnout on the first day as "moderate, and below moderate in some cases". In a statement, it said there had been many violations, including physical assaults on Sabahi representatives, and "intervention by police and army".

The Brotherhood had called for a boycott, while other Egyptians described the election as a waste of time.

Media run by the state and businessmen loyal to the army-backed authorities presented a different picture. "Egyptians make history," declared Al-Ahram, the state's flagship newspaper, showing a snaking line of men waiting to vote.

"Egyptians choose the president and declare the end of the Brotherhood," announced Al-Masry Al-Youm, an independent newspaper hostile to the Islamist movement that was toppled after mass protests against Mursi's rule last year.

On Monday, lines at 20 Cairo polling stations visited by Reuters consistently over the past three years appeared shorter than in previous elections. The interior minister said turnout was good.

As the polls opened at 9.00 a.m. (0600 GMT) on Tuesday, there was no line at one Cairo polling station. At two others, around a half dozen people were waiting in line, fewer then on Monday when the queues there had been measures in dozens.

Though young Egyptians - the generation that drove the 2011 uprising - were often hard to spot at polling stations on Monday, 19-year old Hamdy Abdelrahman was one of the first to cast his ballot on the second day of voting.

"This country needs a military man now - someone who understands everything including laws, someone who can control the country," Abdelrahman said.

Outside a polling station in the affluent area of Zamalek dentist Adnan al-Gindi, 54, waited in line to vote for Sisi.

"I am voting for Sisi because we need to get rid of the Muslim Brotherhood. He stood behind the people to overthrow this garbage (Brothers). He will improve security and the economy."

The majority of those waiting with him said they would vote Sisi, except for one.

"It is not right to have a military man as president after the revolution. Even though we know somehow he will be the president, we can't let him win with 99 percent," said Mohammed Khodr, 34, a film-maker.

In Imababa, an Islamist stronghold, a line of young women waited in the heat to cast their votes for Sisi.

"He is the head of the army, he is respected, he is not corrupt or a thief so am voting for Sisi," said Douaa Mohammad 34, mother of two.

Sisi, 59, faces serious challenges including an economy in crisis and a campaign of Islamist violence that has spiraled since he overthrew Morsi.

Several hundred members of the security forces have been killed in a campaign of violence by radical Islamists since last July. The last year has been the bloodiest period of internal strife in Egypt's modern history.

Human Rights Watch estimates the number of political dissidents and Islamists in detention at more than 20,000.

Western governments have raised concern about respect for freedoms.

The Brotherhood and its allies, which had declared it "the election of the presidency of blood", issued a statement saying their call for a boycott had been widely observed. The group has been declared a terrorist organisation by the state, which accuses it of turning to violence - a charge it denies.

Sisi won 95 percent of votes cast in advance by Egyptians abroad, but an opinion poll by the Washington-based Pew Research Center suggests a more mixed picture, with Sisi viewed favourably by 54 percent and unfavourably by 45 percent.

It is the second time Egyptians are electing a president in two years. And it is the seventh vote or referendum since 2011.

Once president, Sisi will have to meet the high expectations of those who have backed him enthusiastically in the hope that he can tackle poverty, unemployment and other social problems.

He will also be expected to address the corruption, cronyism and inequality between rich and poor that caused the 2011 revolution that overthrew Mubarak.

Since the army overthrew the king in 1952, Egypt has been ruled by a succession of military men - Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Mubarak. That pattern was briefly interrupted by Mursi's divisive year in office, during which important institutions of state resisted his authority.

 

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