CAIRO - Egypt's presidential election on Monday turned into a nationalist celebration at many polls with voters singing and dancing for the almost certain winner — former military chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who last year ousted the first freely elected president.
But the first day of voting in the two-day election also illustrated the bitter divisions that have riven Egypt since the military's removal of Islamist leader Mohammed Morsi. In towns where Islamists dominate, voting was often thin or non-existent.
The 59-year-old retired Field Marshal el-Sissi is looking for more than a landslide victory from the election. He's hoping for a strong turnout to show international critics that his July 3 ouster of Morsi reflected the will of the people — and to claim popular support as he tries to tackle Egypt's daunting economic woes.
For 10 months, el-Sissi has had the institutions of state and nearly all of Egypt's media behind him, whipping up a pro-military jingoism and depicting him as the sole figure who can rescue the country. After polls closed Monday, the prime minister declared Tuesday a holiday for government employees to allow them go to the polls, in a push for greater numbers.
El-Sissi's only rival in the race is left-wing politician Hamdeen Sabahi, who finished third in the 2012 presidential vote.
To accommodate the adulation surrounding el-Sissi, election commission spokesman Abdel-Aziz Salman said that if voters write "l love you" or draw hearts next to their choice on their ballots, it would count as a valid vote — unlike in the past when in which anything but a check would spoil the vote.
At some polling stations in Cairo, lines of el-Sissi supporters waved Egyptian flags and wore clothes in the national red-white-and-black colours. Men and women, including ones wearing the conservative Muslim veil, danced to pro-military pop songs, "Bless the Hands" and "A Good Omen," which have played constantly on the radio for months.
"He is a strict military man. He will get a grip on the country and bring security to the street," said Olfat Sayed Hasanein, a university professor who voted for el-Sissi. "We cannot afford any more failures."
Many voters are desperate for stability after three years of violence and economic decline since autocrat Hosni Mubarak was ousted by the 2011 popular uprising led by activists seeking democratic change and economic equality.
So they have embraced el-Sissi, who promises to end turmoil and has shown a hard-handed intolerance for dissent. Security forces have waged a bloody crackdown on Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, killing hundreds and jailing more than 16,000 — and have also arrested secular activists critical of the military.
Hoda Takla, a 65-year-old Coptic Christian from Cairo's upper-class Maadi suburb had a message for those who oppose el-Sissi. Christians are among el-Sissi's strongest supporters for his fight against Islamists whose power they feared.
"They are not thinking straight," she said. "I feel we are the majority now and I feel that circumstances have brought us Muslims and Christians again closer together. I am very optimistic."
El-Sissi's supporters say he saved Egypt from Islamists. Morsi's loyalists accuse him of crushing democracy with a coup. His secular critics, many of whom supported Morsi's removal, now fear el-Sissi will enshrine a Mubarak-style autocracy.
The Brotherhood and its Islamist allies — who dominated all other votes since Mubarak's ouster — have called for a boycott of the election. That will likely reduce turnout by a sizeable chunk of the nearly 54 million registered voters.
The question will be whether non-Islamist voters also stay away, whether out of disenchantment with el-Sissi or apathy over a foregone conclusion. Some revolutionary activists involved in the 2011 uprising have also called for a boycott, though many have pushed for a vote for Sabahi to reduce el-Sissi's victory and build up a future opposition movement.
In parts of rural Egypt where Islamists are strong, shops were closed, streets deserted and polling centres had only a handful of voters.
In the village of Zaydiya, south of Cairo, most of the closed stores' shutters bore pro-Muslim Brotherhood slogans, proclaiming "Morsi is my president, not al-Sissi" and "CC is a traitor," using English letters for the candidate's name. Morsi posters are plastered on walls around town.
Hesham Mahmoud, a 21-year-old Islamic Law student who runs a small shop, called the election a "farce." He had a beard and wore a short galabiya robe — hallmarks of Islamists.
"We have voted before and where did our votes go?" he said. "All this was swept away as if it never even happened."
In a few towns in southern Egypt, Christians — a strong constituency for el-Sissi — stayed at home, fearing reprisals from powerful Islamist hardliners in their areas.
Some 500,000 soldiers and police deployed to protect the polls amid fears of attack by Islamic militants who have waged a campaign of violence since Morsi's removal. Posters of the security forces were plastered across Cairo, proclaiming, "Come out and we will protect you."
Security forces in body armour, some of them masked, were in sandbagged positions outside polling stations. Army and police helicopters hovered over Cairo.
There were only a few reported incidents of election-related violence. The most serious was the killing of a youth activist who had campaigned for el-Sissi, shot by gunmen as he drove home in the Islamist stronghold of Kirdassa on Cairo's western outskirts.
The election is a powerful contrast to 2012 presidential elections. In that race, there were 13 candidates and a rollicking campaign that saw lively debate over how to achieve the ideals of the "revolution," reflecting the short-lived euphoria that followed Mubarak's ouster.
Morsi, a veteran figure from the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, won in part because even many who distrusted the Islamists preferred him to his opponent — Mubarak's last prime minister Ahmed Shafiq — seen as a throwback to the former state.
This time, a sense of resignation — and worry over the future — hung over many.
Mohammed Heiba, a 37-year-old tailor in Cairo's impoverished Matariya district, reflected the conflicted opinions swirling in Egypt since last July.
He supports Morsi's ouster but doesn't like the crackdown on Islamists because of the bloodshed. He's not an admirer of el-Sissi, but wants the stability the career military man promises to bring.
On Monday, he watched TV coverage of the voting, with a split screen showing scenes from a dozen places around the country at once. "There are no real elections," he mused.
"This is just a bad movie. The days of Mubarak are coming back."
Associated Press reporters Lamia Radi and Sarah El Deeb in Cairo contributed to this report.
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