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 Egypt from Islamists. Morsi's supporters accuse him of crushing democracy with a coup. His secular critics fear he will enshrine a Mubarak-style autocracy.
"This is just a bad movie. The days of Mubarak are coming back," Mohammed Heiba, a tailor in Cairo's impoverished Matariya district, mused. His TV set showed a split-screen of voting scenes from 12 sites around the country.
Many polling centers in the district were almost vacant all morning.
The 37-year-old Heiba reflected the conflicted opinions swirling in Egypt. He supports Morsi's ouster but doesn't like the crackdown because of the bloodshed. He's not an admirer of el-Sissi, but also wants the stability that the career military man promises to bring.
"The vote is more of a referendum pledging allegiance to el-Sissi. There are no real elections," he said.
At other polling stations, the nationalist frenzy was on full display with lines of el-Sissi supporters. They 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 have been constantly played in the streets and on the radio since the July 3 military ouster of Morsi.
"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."
Egypt has been ruled almost entirely by presidents from a military background since the abolishing of the monarchy in 1953 after a coup the year before. The main exception — besides two interim presidents — was Morsi, who held office for a year until protests by millions last summer erupted against him and his Muslim Brotherhood, prompting the military to oust him.
To accommodate the adulation surrounding el-Sissi, election commission spokesman Abdel-Aziz Salman said voters could write "l love you" or draw hearts in their ballots next to the candidate they choose without spoiling their vote.
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.
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 in a security operation 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 armor, 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.
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, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
A crude homemade bomb was hurled from a passing car at security personnel outside a polling center in a village in the Nile Delta. An assailant on a motorbike shot at a polling center in Fayoum, south of Cairo. No one was hurt in either attack, according to the same officials.
The Muslim Brotherhood has instructed its followers to boycott the vote, issuing a statement Monday urging people not to take part in "the crime of the elections of blood."
In parts of rural Egypt where Islamists are strong, shops were closed, streets deserted and polling centers 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."
Also boycotting the polls are many of the pro-democracy youths who participated in the 2011 uprising against Mubarak who see el-Sissi as a return to his autocratic ways.
By percentage of votes, el-Sissi could win a landslide. But the boycotts could dent his hopes for a large turnout among the nearly 54 million registered voters, including 32 million between the ages of 18 and 40. In the 2012 election, for example, Morsi won with around 13 million votes, with a turnout of just under 52 percent.
Mustafa Abdel-Monaim, a small-business owner in Cairo, argued that an el-Sissi presidency goes against the democratic aspirations of the "revolution" against Mubarak.
"I know that el-Sissi will win, but I will vote for Sabahi to prevent him from getting a landslide," he said.