Millions of Egyptians have begun voting for the country's third president in as many years, in a race largely expected to be won by the country’s former army chief.
The two-day vote, which began on Monday, pits retired field marshal Abdel Fattah El Sisi — who led a coup that removed Egypt's first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, and enjoys widespread popularity — against the left-wing candidate Hamdeen Sabahi a former legislator who came in third in the 2012 election.
Sabahi's office complained early on Monday that police and soldiers were refusing his representatives access to polling stations.
In a report issued on May 16, the U.S.-based Carter Center expressed concerns about "the restrictive political and legal context surrounding Egypt’s electoral process, the lack of a genuinely competitive campaign environment and the deep political polarization that threatens the country’s transition."
Carter Center representatives will be among a number of international observers monitoring the polls, including the EU.
More than 53 million people are eligible to take part in the poll. Several political groups have staged a boycott, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the April 6 movement and the Strong Egypt party. The Presidential Election Commission has set up more than 25,000 voting stations across the country, monitored by about 16,000 judges. The results of the election are immune to appeals.
In a statement issued by the army, about 182,000 military personnel will be deployed alongside police.
Election results are to be published on June 5, nearly one year after Morsi was unseated. Millions of people had rallied to cut short Morsi's four-year tenure because his first year in office was marred by deep polarization and sporadic violence.
Since then, Sisi, who was chosen by Morsi at the end of 2012 to be the defense minister, has been deemed by supporters as the country's savior from ongoing instability and a barrier to the Islamist policies of the Muslim Brotherhood. Grass-roots campaigns urged Sisi to present his candidacy for president, and his posters have draped buildings and lined roads in the capital and elsewhere across the country.
"It's like a Mercedes racing a bike," Emad Shahin, a visiting political science professor at Columbia University, told Al Jazeera. "Sisi's campaign has been underway for over 10 months."
An electoral silence, barring campaigning by candidates and supporters, started on Saturday at midnight, only days after Sisi's campaign disclosed its electoral program. The front-runner's primary mission, according to his platform, would be to restore security and stability and heal the country's debt-laden economy.
According to a tally issued on May 25 by the Egyptian Center for Social and Economic Rights, more than 41,000 people have either been charged or detained since the July coup, the majority of them Morsi supporters but also liberals who grew critical of the new regime.
Hundreds of protesters have been killed in that period at the hands of security forces.
Sisi’s opponents have criticized the candidate’s repeated refusal to present a detailed plan, his use of televised, prerecorded interviews instead of direct meetings and his refusal to have a live debate with Sabahi.
"He is promoting an individualistic program, based on him, his brand. He is feeding on people's fears, and intellectuals surrounding him have been playing the security card and how his military background makes him fit for the task," Shahin said.
The military-backed post-coup government passed a law restricting public protests, which it claims is essential to restore a sense of normality to the country and revive an economy battered by three years of unrest.
The Egyptian diaspora voted earlier this month. More than 300,000 people cast ballots in about 140 countries, and 94 percent endorsed Sisi's candidacy.