Egyptians head to polls as ex-army chief Sisi poised for victory
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Egyptians begin voting in a presidential election on Monday expected to sweep former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi into office, reviving strongman rule three years after a popular uprising raised hopes of a democracy free from military influence.
The two-day election caps more than three years of political turmoil that has seen two presidents ousted following mass protests, thousands killed in clashes and militant attacks, and an economy left in tatters.
Polling stations open at 9 am for 53 million registered voters.
Sisi has been widely regarded as Egypt's de facto leader since he toppled Islamist President Mohamed Morsi last July and cracked down on his Muslim Brotherhood party in the bloodiest chapter of the country's modern peacetime history.
Sisi has acknowledged the scale of Egypt's problems, including an energy crisis and Islamist militant violence that has driven away foreign investors and tourists.
"The challenges present in Egypt are so many," he told Reuters in an interview this month. "I believe that within two years of serious, continuous work we can achieve the type of improvement Egyptians are looking for.
Sisi's sole competitor is Hamdeen Sabahi, a leftist politician who finished third in the 2012 election which brought Morsi to power. Although the result appears a foregone conclusion, a big turnout would be seen as a strong mandate for Sisi's rule.
Supporters regard Sisi, who resigned from the military earlier this year, as a decisive figure who can stabilise Egypt, a strategic US ally in the heart of the Arab world. His opponents, mostly in the Islamist opposition, say he is the mastermind of a coup that robbed Egypt's first freely-elected leader of power.
They fear Sisi will rule Egypt with an iron fist just like other former military men did, and say he will protect the political and economic interests of the generals and businessmen who amassed fortunes before the 2011 uprising which toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak but remain influential.
Security forces have largely driven the Brotherhood underground after hundreds were killed and thousands arrested. More than a thousand Brotherhood supporters have been sentenced to death on charges including inciting violence after the army overthrew Morsi.
Influential Egypt-born cleric and backer of the Muslim Brotherhood, Yusef al-Qaradawi, has urged a boycott, saying Sisi was "soaked from head to toe in the blood of innocents".
The April 6 youth movement, which spearheaded the anti-Mubarak revolt and whose leader has been jailed, has also called for a boycott.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AFP)