Voting in Egypt’s presidential election was slow on Wednesday after polling was extended for a third day in an attempt to boost turnout, raising questions about the level of support for the man forecast to win, former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
An early tour of Cairo polling stations suggested authorities would again struggle to get more people to cast their ballots. The same pattern emerged in Egypt’s second city, Alexandria, Reuters reporters said.
In a country polarised since a popular uprising toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the low turnout was linked to political apathy, opposition to another military man becoming president, discontent at suppression of freedoms among liberal youth, and calls for a boycott by Islamists.
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, who toppled President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood last year after mass protests against his rule, the stakes are high.
Poor backing in the election in his deeply divided country would mean Sisi’s legitimacy as head of state of the Arab world’s most populous nation would be harmed at home and abroad.
The two-day vote was originally due to conclude on Tuesday but was extended until 9 p.m. (1800 GMT) 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.
The Democracy International observer mission said the decision to extend polling raised questions about the integrity of Egypt’s electoral process.
“Last-minute decisions about important election procedures, such as a decision to extend polling by an additional day, should be made only in extraordinary circumstances,” said Eric Bjornlund, president of Democracy International, in a statement.
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.
Sisi’s campaign posted picture of voters waving Egyptian flags and holding Sisi posters. “Come out and raise the flag of your country,” it said on Facebook.
The decision to extend the voting by a day may prove to be a strategic blunder unless many more Egyptians turn up to vote.
A polling station with 6,200 registered voters in Cairo’s working class Shubra district was empty shortly after polls opened on Wednesday, except for polling staff, soldiers and police.
“Supporters of Sisi’s presidential run would have assumed that turnout would have been tremendously high, particularly given the military leadership gave its public approval in order for him to do so,” said H.A. Hellyer, nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and the Royal United Services Institute in London. “Extending voting for a third day, presumably due to a low turnout during the first two days, would belie that assumption – and may call into question the mobilisation ability of the state, including the military.”
Despite an official campaign to bring out more voters, polling places were thinly attended for a number of reasons.
The Muslim Brotherhood, believed to have one million members in a country of 85 million, has rejected the poll, describing it as an extension of the army takeover. The group, loyal to Mursi, was outlawed by the military as a terrorist group and saw around 1,000 members killed in a security crackdown.
“Holding these elections is null and void under the military coup … It cannot be legitimised by elections or in any other way,” said Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Abdel Hafeez.
Secular activists, including ones who backed Mursi’s ouster, had become disillusioned with Sisi after many were rounded up in the security crackdown that also restricted protests.
Voter turnout may have also been low because some Egyptians who decided Sisi’s victory was a foregone conclusion saw no point in casting ballots. Others simply did not want to vote for another military man after Mubarak.
Since he gave a series of television interviews, many Egyptians feel Sisi has not spelled out a clear vision of how he would tackle Egypt’s challenges, from widespread poverty to an energy crisis and an Islamist insurgency.
His message that Egyptians must endure more austerity may have fuelled voter apathy in a country where one leader from the military after another failed to improve living standards.
“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, a driver in Cairo.
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, whose campaign rejected the extra day of voting.
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?”
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, and Muslim and Coptic Christian religious leaders also urged people to vote.
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.
Sisi has 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.
In the Sinai, where Egypt’s most dangerous militants are based, gunmen killed an Egyptian soldier, security sources said.
In an eastern district of Cairo, gunmen opened fire at an electricity station in what the electricity ministry called a “terrorist” attack.
Egypt is suffering from almost daily power cuts as the country faces a massive energy crunch.