Egyptians were initially slow to vote on a hastily added third day of a presidential election on Wednesday after lower-than-expected turnout threatened to damage the credibility of the man widely forecast to win, former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
An early tour of Cairo polling stations suggested authorities would again struggle to get people to cast their ballots.
After months of adulation by the media encouraged by his supporters in government, the security services and business, many Egyptians were shocked when the election failed to produce the mass support predicted by Sisi himself.
For Sisi, locked in a battle with the Muslim Brotherhood after toppling Islamist president Mohamed Mursi last year, the stakes are high.
Poor backing in the election in his deeply polarised country would mean Sisi’s legitimacy as head of state of the Arab world’s most populous nation would be harmed at home, in the Middle East and in the wider world.
The two-day vote was originally due to conclude on Tuesday at 10 p.m. (1900 GMT) but was extended until Wednesday to allow the “greatest number possible” to vote, state media reported.
“The state searches for a vote,” said a front-page headline in privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper.
Distancing Sisi from the vote extension, seen by commentators as an embarrassing attempt to attract every last vote from a reluctant electorate, his campaign announced that he had objected to the decision.
The decision to extend the voting by a day may prove to be a strategic blunder unless much larger numbers of Egyptians turn up to vote.
A polling station with 6,200 registered voters in Cairo’s working class district of Shubra was empty shortly after polls opened on Wednesday, except for the polling staff, soldiers and police.
“People are saying to themselves, ‘what is the point of voting?’ I personally know my voice won’t make a difference so I’m not voting,” said Rashad Zeidan, 60, as he polished the hood of a luxury car he drives for a wealthy family in Cairo’s upscale Zamalek district.
Sisi has not spelled out how he would tackle Egypt’s multiple challenges, from widespread poverty to an energy crisis and an Islamist insurgency.
Unlike the previous election which brought Mursi to power and was contested by a dozen candidates, Sisi faces only one rival now: the leftist Hamdeen Sabahi.
Sabahi’s campaign rejected the extension of voting as unjustified, given the lack of enthusiasm shown so far by many Egyptians.
In a statement, it denounced the move as an attempt “to prevent the Egyptians from expressing their opinion through manipulating the turnout rates and the voting percentages”.
Some voters doubted whether any further support for Sisi might be found, despite the extension. “I came to see the millions they said were coming to vote. I can’t see anybody except two people and the electoral commission,” said Hussein Hassanein, a 24-year-old law student.
“I won’t vote for either. This is a fake election. We know that Sisi is going to win. Who would you expect me to vote for?”
Lines outside polling stations in various parts of Cairo were short on Tuesday, and in some cases no voters could be seen, even though the military-backed government had launched a determined effort to get out the vote, declaring Tuesday a public holiday.
The justice ministry said Egyptians who did not vote would be fined, and train fares were waived in an effort to boost the numbers. Local media loyal to the government chided the public for not turning out in large enough numbers.
One prominent television commentator said people who did not vote were “traitors, traitors, traitors”.
Al-Azhar, a state-run body that is Egypt’s highest Islamic authority, said a failure to vote was “to disobey the nation”, state TV reported. Pope Tawadros, head of Egypt’s Coptic church, also appeared on state TV to urge voters to head to the polls.
Turnout in the 2012 election won by Mursi was 52 percent – a level this vote must exceed for Sisi to enjoy full political legitimacy, said Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University.
Were it to fall short, then he will have failed “to read the political scene”, he said. Sisi had called for a turnout of 40 million, or 80 percent of the electorate.
Sisi’s supporters see him as the man to rescue the country after three years of upheaval. He became a hero to many for removing Mursi after mass protests.
But the Islamists accuse him of staging a bloody coup, and a crackdown on dissent has alienated the liberal young people behind the “Arab Spring” revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Trying to lower sky-high expectations in the run-up to the election, Sisi stressed the need for austerity and self-sacrifice, a message that cost him some support and drew some ridicule in a nation of 85 million steeped in poverty.
He had announced his priorities as fighting Islamist militants who have taken up arms since Mursi’s removal, and reviving an economy badly in need of tourists and investors.