CAIRO - Turnout appeared low on Tuesday as Egyptians voted on the second day of an election that President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is virtually certain to win, after all serious rivals were either arrested or intimidated into dropping out.
El-Sissi came to power after leading the 2013 military overthrow of his freely elected civilian president, Mohammed Morsi, amid mass protests against his divisive one-year rule. The only other candidate on the ballot, Moussa Mustafa Moussa, registered at the last minute and supports el-Sissi.
With the outcome known, the government hopes to boost turnout and show it has popular support. Voting is being held over three days, from Monday to Wednesday, as a way of encouraging participation among Egypt's nearly 60 million eligible voters.
State and private media, which all support el-Sissi, say turnout appeared high on the first day, but Associated Press reporters on the ground at a dozen polling stations in Cairo observed only a trickle of voters entering. Election officials say it's too early to estimate turnout.
The election commission has issued vaguely worded orders banning reporters from asking people inside the polling stations who they plan to vote for, or from engaging in "political" discussions with voters. Press cards issued to journalists note that "foreign observers" are banned from "interfering in the internal affairs of the country."
Security officers check the IDs of those entering polling stations, but allow journalists to conduct interviews.
At one station in the Sixth of October suburb on Tuesday, where some 8,000 voters are registered, judges supervising the balloting said the previous day's turnout had been around 14 percent.
One judge said that voters, who trickled in in small numbers as he spoke, had often been coerced to vote.
"I have been hearing stories that hurt my ears," he said. "Ministries, government agencies, large supermarkets ... You see groups coming together and you can ask them and see what brought them."
Compared to the 2012 elections, Egypt's first democratic contest, "there was real competition compared to this one," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
As he spoke, loudspeakers played pro-army songs, while banners on nearby buildings extolled el-Sissi.
"It's better to stand in the line of voters than in the line of refugees," read one banner, a reference to the chaos in Syria following its own revolt against President Bashar Assad. El-Sissi's supporters say he rescued Egypt from a similar fate by leading Morsi's overthrow and launching a heavy crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood group.
Thousands of Islamists, as well as several secular activists, have been imprisoned since el-Sissi rose to power. Unauthorized protests have been banned, critical voices have been silenced in the media and hundreds of websites have been blocked.
Across the street from the polling station, 19-year-old engineering student Salma Mohammed said that older Egyptians are pressuring young people to vote for el-Sissi.
"Most of the youth see this as a farce," she said, adding that some of her friends had been unjustly accused of extremism under el-Sissi's rule. "There are no freedoms, but he also brought security."