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Voting Opens in Egyptian Election Lacking Suspense

CAIRO — Voters around the capital lined up Monday morning to cast ballots in an election universally expected to make Abdel Fattah el-Sisi the next president of Egypt, turning out to show their support in a contest where turnout is the biggest question.

In an interview on a pro-Sisi talk show Sunday evening, Abdel Aziz Salman, the general secretary of the High Presidential Election Commission, said that voters would be permitted to endorse a candidate by drawing hearts or professing their love on their ballots if they chose. If a voter “wrote ‘I love you’ before a certain name, then it’s not invalid,” Mr. Salman said.

By midday, a woman had given birth in an Alexandria polling station, state media reported, and she had named her son “Sisi.”

Mr. Sisi, the former army field marshal who led the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood last summer, faces only one lesser-known and underfunded opponent, Hamdeen Sabahi. Both represent the same broadly Nasserite political tradition, but Mr. Sisi is considered the candidate of the security forces and government bureaucracy, as well as of the business elite. Several other past or potential presidential candidates declined to enter the race because they said that it would be slanted in favor of Mr. Sisi.

The Brotherhood, the party that dominated Egypt’s free elections in 2011 and 2012, has called for a boycott. Since the takeover last summer, the government installed by Mr. Sisi has killed more than a thousand Brotherhood supporters at street protests and imprisoned tens of thousands of others, including Mr. Morsi and most of the group’s other leaders. Last December, the new government formally declared the organization an illegal terrorist group.

Several liberal or left-leaning organizations such as the April 6 group, which played a leading role in the 2011 uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak, have also called for a boycott. The new government has jailed some of the April 6 group’s leaders, including its coordinator, Ahmed Maher, and a court in Cairo recently banned the group as well.

As polls opened at 9 a.m. on Monday, Egyptian television broadcast footage of a crowd cheering for Mr. Sisi as he entered a polling station to cast his own ballot. It was presumably his first: Egyptian military personnel are barred from voting, and Mr. Sisi, 59, served in the military for more than forty years, until he resigned a few months ago to seek the presidency.

It is Egypt’s 10th national vote in the last four years, including three constitutional referendums, two rounds each for two legislative chambers, now disbanded, and two rounds to choose a president, who was subsequently deposed. Mr. Sisi will become Egypt’s fourth president in four years, following Mr. Mubarak (under arrest in a military hospital overlooking the Nile), Mr. Morsi (jailed in Alexandria and facing politicized criminal charges), and the current interim president Adly Mansour (a senior judge whom Mr. Sisi appointed to the interim role).

Mr. Mansour, who will have ruled Egypt for nearly as long as Mr. Morsi’s one year in office, now stands a chance of becoming the first former Egyptian president to remain alive and at large. The only former president whose term did not end in death or jail was President Mohamed Naguib, a caretaker who held the job for two years before Gamal Abdel Nasser consolidated power in 1954. But President Nasser then placed Mr. Naguib under house arrest, barring him from further participation in public life.

Heavily armed soldiers, some in dark masks, were stationed outside polling places to guard against potential attempts at disruption. Military helicopters buzzed low over the capital and reportedly over other cities as well, a reminder of the military’s power.

Mr. Sisi is in effect competing against the roughly 52 percent turnout in the second round of the 2012 presidential election — Egypt’s only free and fair contest — when Mr. Morsi won a suspenseful and intensely competitive race against Ahmed Shafik, another former general. Their runoff followed an even more unpredictable first round of campaigning by a broad spectrum of candidates, with Mr. Morsi receiving about 25 percent of the vote, Mr. Shafik placing second with about 24 percent, and Mr. Sabahi placing third with about 21 percent.

Mr. Sisi’s second challenge regards younger voters. Reviewing the results of a constitutional referendum in January that was widely seen as a demonstration of support for Mr. Sisi, news reports and many commentators, including some sympathetic to Mr. Sisi, noted a conspicuous absence of voters under 40. The results spurred a national discussion of disaffection among younger Egyptians who seem to identify more closely with the Arab Spring revolt of 2011. Three out of four Egyptians are under 40, and two out of three are under 35.

Anecdotal reports on Monday morning suggested a similar pattern, but it was too soon to evaluate. Polls will remain open for two days of voting, and younger voters may turn out later.

The third question is potential violence. Since the ouster of Mr. Morsi, Islamist militants have claimed responsibility for a series of bombings aimed at security forces or their headquarters, as well as the assassinations of hundreds of officers and conscripts. The government has said that it is bolstering security to ensure safety at the polls.

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(via NY Times)