CAIRO -- Supporters of former army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the man who toppled Egypt's first freely elected civilian leader, are already celebrating in anticipation of his victory in presidential election.
Even before polls closed Monday in the first of the two-day presidential race, Sissi backers in Cairo's affluent and working-class districts alike danced and flashed victory signs while pro-military songs blared from passing cars. The campaign of his opponent, former lawmaker Hamdeen Sabahi, said voting was marred by irregularities, including the arrest of a number of its members.
The festive mood masks the challenges the next president will inherit: a nation struggling since the 2011 uprising that ended Hosni Mubarak's three-decade rule to recover from political unrest. While Mr. Sissi, who led the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July, is widely expected to win, turnout may determine whether he'll have the mandate necessary to fulfill his pledges to restore order and revive the economy. His critics accuse him of leading a bloody crackdown on Mr. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, which is boycotting the vote.
"The real test in Egypt is governing, not winning," Yasser el-Shimy, a teaching fellow at Boston University who focuses on Egypt, said in a phone interview Monday. "We're talking about a state that has been progressively weakening for as many as three decades."
Mr. Sissi, a former defense minister whose posters are plastered along roads in Cairo and elsewhere, has already won more than 90 percent of votes among Egyptians overseas this month. Total results are expected by June 5.
Mr. Sissi is set to follow the current interim president, Adly Mansour, a senior judge whom Mr. Sissi appointed to the interim role.
Mr. Mansour, who will have ruled Egypt for nearly as long as Morsi's one year in office, now stands a chance of becoming the first former Egyptian president to remain alive and at large. The only former president whose term did not end in death or jail was President Mohammed Naguib, a caretaker who held the job for two years before Gamal Abdel Nasser consolidated power in 1954. But Nasser then placed Naguib under house arrest, barring him from further participation in public life.
The military-backed interim authorities have billed the vote as a crucial step to restore stability and democracy. Key to this will be a high turnout among the roughly 53 million eligible voters surpassing that in the 2012 election, which Mr. Morsi won, said Mr. Shimy. Almost 39 percent of voters turned out to pass the country's new constitution in January, while more than 51 percent cast their ballots in the vote that propelled Mr. Morsi to office.
"This is the moment that is meant to bestow legitimacy on the events that took place on July 3," Mr. Shimy said, referring to the day when Mr. Sissi removed Mrsi from power.
Many of Mr. Sissi's supporters said they voted for the man whom they see capable of crushing militancy and reducing record unemployment.
"El-Sissi will allow no problems to happen," said 62-year-old supermarket owner Ali Mohammed. "God will help him, and we will all back him." In the working-class same district of Imbaba, Mahmoud Sayed said Mr. Sissi must take the helm because "at this point, security tops our priorities."
Voting took place under tight security. More than 180,000 troops have been deployed to guard polling stations and state installations. Authorities reported that several homemade bombs planted near polling stations were defused in the greater Cairo area and elsewhere.
In the northeastern city of Zagazig, army troops detained seven students after clashes with security forces outside a university, state-run Ahram Gate reported. The students were allegedly attempting to disrupt the vote and were chanting that it was a "farce."
During the campaign, Mr. Sissi has sought to cultivate an image of a man who is capable of putting an end to the wave of militant attacks plaguing Egypt since Mr. Morsi's ouster. He pledged to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood, the group that fielded the former president for office.
Interim authorities have classified the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, while security forces have killed hundreds of Mr. Morsi's supporters since July. The group has denied charges of violence.
Policies since July have been "stupid and this is what has scared me of Mr. Sissi and what has increasingly divided the people," said Samia Mohammed, a pediatrician who said she voted for Mr. Sabahi.
The election comes as 59 percent of Egyptians surveyed in a Pew Research poll said they view democracy as the preferred system, down from 66 percent a year earlier. The survey, released last week, found Mr. Sissi viewed favorably by 54 percent, while 45 percent had an unfavorable view of him. Forty-two percent had a favorable view of Mr. Morsi.
Ms. Mohammed's family is a reflection of such division. She said she doesn't know who her husband voted for, while her children will probably abstain "because they think it's a charade."
"We're in a ship that needs to sail. When one wants to go right and the other left, we will not go anywhere and we will see more people resorting to violence," she said.
The New York Times contributed.