CAIRO — Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's supporters danced to pop tunes praising the military and sported T-shirts bearing his image as they cast ballots Monday in a presidential election that is seen certain to vault the retired field marshal to office.
But el-Sissi, who last summer ousted Egypt's first freely elected president, is looking for more than a landslide victory from the two-day vote. He also is hoping for a strong turnout to show international critics that his removal of Islamist Mohammed Morsi reflected the will of the people.
The election is a powerful contrast to 2012 presidential elections, the first after the toppling of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak by a popular uprising the year before.
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, the Brotherhood is out of the race, crushed under a ferocious crackdown that has killed hundreds of Morsi's supporters and arrested thousands more since his removal. El-Sissi has been elevated by a surge of nationalism fed by media lauding him as the nation's savior. His only opponent in the race is leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, who finished third in the 2012 election.
El-Sissi's supporters say he saved the country from Islamists while his secular critics fear he will enshrine a Mubarak-style autocracy once more.
All that most voters want is stability and an end to years of turmoil, despite worries among critics that the 59-year-old el-Sissi will bring it by suppressing dissent.
"He is a strict military man. He will grip 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."
The next president will be Egypt's eighth since the overthrow of the monarch in 1953. Of the seven past presidents, five came from military backgrounds. Besides Morsi, who ruled for a year, the other civilian president was Sufi Abu Taleb, who briefly held the position in an interim capacity after Anwar Sadat's assassination in October 1981.
El-Sissi, wearing a business suit and tie, voted at a school in the upscale Cairo district of Heliopolis, as women cheered and ululated to greet him. "The whole world is watching to see how the Egyptians will make history," he told reporters.
At many polling stations, voters waved Egyptian flags and wore clothes in the national red-white-and-black colors. Men and women danced to pro-military pop songs, "Bless the Hands" and "A Good Omen," which emerged after the July 3 military ouster of Morsi and have been constantly played in the streets and on the radio since.
"El-Sissi is the greatest person in the world," said Nasser Meghres, a 54-year-old businessman from Heliopolis. "We have absolute faith in the army and the police."
Speaking to reporters as he cast his vote, Sabahi urged Egyptians to "come out and vote for their future." Voting continues for a second day on Tuesday.
Some 500,000 soldiers and police were deployed for the balloting. Security forces in body armor, some of them masked, were in sandbagged positions outside polling stations. Army and police helicopters hovered over Cairo as part of the massive security operation.
Posters with pictures of the security forces were plastered across Cairo to urge voters to the polls, proclaiming, "Come out and we will protect you."
More than seven hours after the polls opened at 9 a.m., no major election-related violence was reported.
Gunmen killed a youth activist who had campaigned for el-Sissi as he was driving home in the restive Islamist stronghold of Kirdassa on Cairo's western outskirts, security officials said.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said police were investigating whether the Brotherhood was behind the killing. The activist was long suspected of being on a purported hit list of the group, they said.
Somebody also hurled a crude homemade bomb from a passing car at security personnel outside a polling center in a village close to the industrial city of Mahalla, and an assailant on a motorbike shot at a polling center in the oasis province of Fayoum, but nobody was hurt in either attack, according to the same officials.
"Be strong, come on down, there's nothing to worry about and I promise you a full control of the situation," Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab said in an interview with the private CBC TV network, addressing Kirdassa residents.
Egypt's official Middle East News Agency said 18 suspected Brotherhood supporters have been detained nationwide for trying to disrupt the voting.
By percentage of votes, el-Sissi could win a landslide, but his camp's attention was more focused on the turnout among the nearly 54 million registered voters, including 32 million between the ages of 18 and 40. A low turnout would show the narrowness of his support in a country that has risen up against two presidents since 2011.
If Sabahi manages to thwart a landslide with a respectable showing, it would be a further blow, showing an existing and active opposition to el-Sissi despite the media hype.
Mustafa Abdel-Monaim, a small-business owner in Cairo, argued that an el-Sissi presidency goes against the goals of the 2011 uprising.
"I know that el-Sissi will win, but I will vote for Sabahi to prevent him from getting a landslide," he said.
It is too early to gauge the turnout, but lines formed outside polling centers in Cairo nearly an hour before they opened, although numbers dwindled in several areas throughout the day. The chief of the European Union observer mission, Mario David, said early signs pointed to a good turnout.
The Muslim Brotherhood has instructed its followers to boycott the vote. Also boycotting the polls are many of the pro-democracy youths who participated in the 2011 uprising against Mubarak.Comment on this story
"You free Egyptians are the ones who grant or take away legitimacy and you had already given it to the kidnapped civilian president," a Brotherhood statement said, alluding to Morsi's detention since his ouster. "Consequently, you cannot take part in the crime of the elections of blood."
Both el-Sissi and Sabahi have vowed to maintain a decree by the military-backed government that banned the Brotherhood and declared it a terrorist group.
El-Sissi has pledged to bring democracy to Egypt, but Morsi's backers say the ouster of an elected president crushed those hopes.
"We want security first, then everything else will follow," said Manal Mohammed, a government employee standing in line outside a polling center in the densely populated Cairo district of Imbaba.