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Nariman El-Mofty
Egyptian men wave national flags as they wait in line to vote during the first day of the presidential election in front of a polling site in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, March 26, 2018. Egyptians head to the polls on Monday but the presidential election this time is not about who wins — that was settled long ago — but about how many people bother to cast ballots. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

CAIRO — Egyptians began voting Monday in an election that President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is virtually guaranteed to win, one that resembles the referendums held by Arab autocrats in the decades before the 2011 uprisings briefly raised hopes of democratic change.

His only challenger is Moussa Mustafa Moussa, a little-known politician who joined the race at the last minute to spare the government the embarrassment of a one-candidate election after several hopefuls were forced out or arrested.

Moussa, who supported el-Sissi until he joined the race, made no effort to challenge the incumbent, who never mentioned his challenger once in public. "Today we want the people to come out and vote ... It doesn't matter who wins as long as Egypt remains safe," Moussa said after casting his ballot Monday.

Authorities hope enough of Egypt's nearly 60 million eligible voters will take part in the three-day balloting to give the election legitimacy. Local media, which are dominated by pro-government commentators, have portrayed voting as a national obligation and the only way to prevent foreign conspiracies from sowing instability.

Some of the presidential hopefuls who had stepped forward might have attracted a sizable protest vote, but they were all either arrested or intimidated into withdrawing, making this the least competitive election since the 2011 uprising ousted longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

The vote is being held against the backdrop of the most wide-ranging crackdown on dissent in decades, with thousands of Islamists as well as several prominent secular activists in jail. Unauthorized protests are banned, critical voices have been silenced in the local media, and hundreds of websites, including those of independent media and rights groups, have been blocked.

El-Sissi, who led the 2013 military overthrow of Egypt's first freely elected president, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi, cast his ballot as soon as the polls opened at 9 a.m., at a girls' school in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. He made no public comments.

Associated Press reporters visiting polling stations across Cairo saw short lines formed in front of some locations and others that were nearly empty as of early afternoon, though more voters were expected to come out in the evening and over the next two days.

Local television aired footage of festive scenes outside some polling stations, with women and children singing nationalistic songs. The national election commission reported large turnout in Cairo, Alexandria and northern Sinai, the epicenter of an insurgency led by the Islamic State group, but provided no figures.

"I'm not lazy or apathetic, I'm intentionally skipping this one," said Ahmed, a young man smoking a water pipe at a café in central Cairo. A shopkeeper in downtown dismissed the election, saying the world was laughing at Egypt. Both asked that their full names not be used, fearing reprisal.

Tens of thousands of police and soldiers have been deployed for the vote. On Sunday, authorities said police killed six militants believed to be involved in a weekend bombing in the coastal city of Alexandria that killed two policemen.

Mohammed Ibrahim Ali, a retired engineer, patiently waited for the polls to open at Cairo's bustling Sayda Zeinab neighborhood, home to a famous Islamic shrine.

"Even if there are 1,000 candidates, we will vote for el-Sissi," he said, struggling to be heard over the patriotic songs blaring from nearby speakers. "He is the one who makes life great here."

Ahmed Abdel-Atti, a 58-year-old doorman in the same neighborhood, voiced skepticism. "Do you see any other candidates?" he asked.

During the official campaign period, el-Sissi opted for carefully scripted televised functions. The former general donned military fatigues on recent occasions, highlighting the war on Islamic extremists and his past career as a general.

Many Egyptians welcomed the military overthrow of Morsi, whose divisive rule had sparked mass protests, and the subsequent crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood group. For a time, el-Sissi enjoyed a wave of popular support bordering on hysteria, but that aura has faded over the last four years.

In the Sinai Peninsula, the insurgency that gained strength after Morsi's overthrow has only grown more ferocious, with regular attacks on security forces and deadly church bombings. An assault on a mosque in November killed more than 300 people — the worst terror attack in Egypt's modern history.

The government has meanwhile enacted a series of long-overdue economic reforms — including painful subsidy cuts and the floatation of the currency. That improved the investment climate and earned Egypt a $12 billion bailout loan from the International Monetary Fund. But the austerity measures sent prices soaring, exacting a heavy toll on ordinary Egyptians.

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"I was a wholehearted supporter, but not anymore," said a man who recently lost his job in a telecommunications company and now works at a Cairo gas station. "Yes, there are big projects, but he (el-Sissi) takes from us, the poor, not from them, the rich. We are the people who are living day to day."

He also asked that his full name not be used, fearing trouble with the authorities.

Khaled Abdel-Lateef, a fresh juice seller in downtown Cairo, struck an upbeat note, saying authorities need more time. "We need to be patient," he said. "The good things will come. At the very least, we have security."