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It also served notice that Egyptians can still pull off stunning surprises - and that after rising up against two presidents since 2011, they expect more from a politician than heroic status.

Many el-Sissi supporters voted enthusiastically, singing and dancing at the polls, saying they had confidence that a man from the military can bring stability after three years of bloody unrest. Equally appealing were his comments on the merits of moderate Islam and his intention to fight extremism.

The boycott by the Brotherhood, which has the country's strongest get-out-the vote-machine, heavily gouged the turnout numbers.

But many others who declined to vote - and even some who voted for el-Sissi - said he seemed to take Egyptians for granted and lacked solutions for millions living in poverty. They were struck by how he showed little tolerance for dissent, was dismissive of freedoms and rights and was strongly backed by former members of Mubarak's ruling party - all fueling concerns he will bring back Mubarak's autocratic ways.

"This man will seal the gates of democracy behind him with a lock and chain. It will be our last elections, and it is a farce," said Ramadan Salem, a 57-year-old boycotter who was sitting among fellow taxi drivers sipping tea under a main bridge in central Cairo.

Even el-Sissi's campaign motto - "We work together" - struck Salem as a way to evade responsibility.

"When he fails, it will be us failing, not him," he said.

El-Sissi acted presidential long before the first ballot was cast. Unlike Sabahi, the only other contender in the race, el-Sissi never went into the streets to campaign, instead giving TV interviews and holding meetings in opulent surroundings with influential groups like editors, businessmen, celebrities and clerics.

His straight talk on the extent of economic problems rang harsh to some, telling already struggling Egyptians to buckle down and sacrifice. Promising "great leaps," he gave mixed signals on his policies. He advocated heavy government involvement in the economy with state-sponsored mega-projects to create jobs and even in setting market prices. At the same time, he flirted with businessmen, saying he planned to give them a share.

He spoke of reshaping the map of Egypt by expanding Nile Valley provinces into the desert to redistribute population. His answer for funding it was billions of dollars from oil-rich Gulf nations and from Egyptian expatriates.

And if Gulf money doesn't come through, "it will be a big problem," said engineer Mohammed Bahaa Eddin, standing near a vacant Cairo polling center. He voted for el-Sissi, but added: "When I watch him on TV, I am uncomfortable. Something is ambiguous about him. His ideas are not clear."

El-Sissi has led the harsh crackdown on Morsi's supporters that has killed hundreds and jailed thousands. It has also imprisoned secular-leaning dissenters and brought reports of abuses of detainees, random arrests and lack of due process. In interviews, el-Sissi insisted stability has priority over rights of speech and protest. He was brusque and imperious at times, snapping at interviewers for perceived slights of the military.

That worried some even beyond the ranks of revolutionary activists.

Mohammed Amer, a 26-year-old government employee who didn't vote, said that during the campaign, "people began to realize how shallow he is."

"People saw the return of the police state."