By Stephen Kalin and Shadia Nasralla
CAIRO/SUEZ (Reuters) - Egyptians voted on Monday in an election expected to install former army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sisi as president, with supporters brushing aside concerns about political freedom and hailing him as the strong leader the country needs.
Three years after the historic uprising against Hosni Mubarak, the vote is set to restore a pattern of rule by men from the military after Sisi toppled Egypt's first freely elected leader, Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Voters lined up to cast ballots at polling stations guarded by soldiers in face masks and armed with assault rifles. Sisi faces only one challenger in the two-day vote: the leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi.
"We see Sisi as a real man. Egypt likes a strong man," said 64-year-old Saber Habib, clenching his fist to make his point as he waited to vote in the city of Suez, east of Cairo.
"We want the country to move forward and for the people to have bread," said Habib, a contractor.
Widely regarded as Egypt's de facto leader since he toppled Mursi after mass protests, Sisi, 59, faces manifold challenges including an economy in crisis and a campaign of Islamist violence that has spiralled since he overthrew Mursi.
To the Islamists, he is the mastermind of a bloody coup that led to a crackdown that has killed hundreds of Mursi supporters and landed thousands more in jail. Secular dissidents who led the 2011 uprising against Mubarak have also been imprisoned.
At the same time, several hundred members of the security forces have been killed in a campaign of violence by radical Islamists since last July. The last year has been the bloodiest period of internal strife in Egypt's modern history.
The Brotherhood and its allies, which had declared it "the election of the presidency of blood", issued a statement saying their call for a boycott had been widely observed. However, the interior minister said turnout was good.
The government says the Brotherhood is a terrorist organisation that has turned to violence - a charge it denies.
Eleven Brotherhood supporters were arrested while staging a protest in Alexandria, Egypt's second city, security officials said.
Sabahi's campaign alleged "systematic violations" by police and army, and said three campaign delegates had been detained. It planned to complain to the body overseeing the vote.
As Sisi voted in Cairo, he waved to supporters, who shouted "President, President!"
"Today Egyptians are going to write their history," said Sisi, who hopes a big turnout will give him a strong mandate.
At a polling station in one Cairo neighbourhood, women danced to a song written to build up voter enthusiasm for the election. Women clapped and ululated as they prepared to vote.
The election is the seventh vote or referendum since the 2011 uprising that raised hopes for democracy. But three years on, with democracy seen by some as an experiment that failed, many Egyptians say stability comes first.
Sisi won 95 percent of votes cast in advance by Egyptians abroad, but an opinion poll by the Washington-based Pew Research Center suggests a more mixed picture, with Sisi viewed favourably by 54 percent and unfavourably by 45 percent. [ID:nL6N0O83EV]
At one polling station reserved for male voters in Cairo, all except one person in a line of around 50 said they would vote for Sisi, who has been lionized by media run by the state and big businessmen who overwhelmingly back the army.
"I'm voting for Sabahi because of his programme and because Egypt needs a civilian president to begin building a democratic society like other countries have," said Fathi Abdelhamid, 58, a manager at an engineering firm.
Interrupting him, the person next to him said: "But most people want someone with experience, and that person is Sisi. Look at his experience in military intelligence. He knows how to work with the state."
Since the army overthrew the king in 1952, Egypt has been ruled by a succession of military men - Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Mubarak. That pattern was briefly interrupted by Mursi's divisive year in office, during which important institutions of state resisted his authority.
The 2012 election won by Mursi was a tightly contested race fought by around a dozen candidates.
"What happened in Egypt was wrong and the best message against it is to boycott this vote," said Abdel Karim Mohamed, a 45-year old accountant, speaking in hushed tones as he parked his motor-bike near a polling station.
Witnesses and security officials said 400 Mursi supporters staged a march against the election in Kerdasa, a town on the Cairo outskirts where 14 policemen were killed last August after the security forces killed hundreds of Mursi supporters.
An influential Muslim cleric with Brotherhood links urged Egyptians to boycott the vote. Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, who lives in Qatar, said Sisi had "disobeyed God".
Sisi, quietly spoken former head of military intelligence, has in turn mobilised religion against the Islamists during his election campaign, presenting himself as a God-fearing defender of Islam.
Critics fear he will rule Egypt with an iron fist.
Human rights groups have raised serious concerns about accounts of torture in police custody, and a court's decision to sentence some 1,200 Brotherhood supporters and members to death earlier this year drew criticism from Western governments.
The United States has cited concerns about "the shrinking space" for dialogue, peaceful protest and press freedom, urging Egypt to adopt a path that "doesn't lock up people just for expressing dissent".
In an interview with Reuters, a former Muslim Brotherhood leader said Sisi must respect democracy and human rights or risk more instability.
"There is no option for any government in Egypt other than to bring about national reconciliation," said Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh in the May 21 interview. "The injustices must stop." [ID:nL6N0O9373]
"Egypt's presidential elections will not wipe the country's human rights record clean after 10 months of gross violations," rights group Amnesty International said in a statement.
Sisi has listed security and the economy as his primary concerns and said Egypt is not ready for a Western-style democracy - a view with echoes of the Mubarak days.
The election will have a bearing on relations with the United States, which has linked the future of its long-standing military ties with Cairo to the political transition.
Following Mursi's overthrow and the crackdown, the U.S. administration suspended much of its $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Cairo. But last month it announced it would resume some aid, partly to help in the fight against militants.
Monitors from the European Union and U.S.-funded Democracy International are observing the vote, and more than 400,000 members of the security forces have been deployed to secure polling stations across the country.
As voting began, one of Egypt's state-run TV stations reported a bomb had exploded outside a polling station. The Interior Ministry denied the report.