Cairo: Many Egyptians failed to vote in a presidential election on Wednesday despite official efforts to boost turnout with an extra day of polling, raising doubts about the level of support for the man still forecast to win, former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
A low turnout would sound a warning to Sisi that he had failed to achieve the resounding mandate he sought after toppling Egypt's first freely elected president, Islamist Mohamed Morsi, following street protests last year.
A tour of Cairo polling stations on Wednesday 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 mass support for Sisi, who had called for a turnout of 40 million, or 80 percent of the electorate.
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 pictures of long lines of voters, some waving Egyptian flags and holding posters of Sisi. "Come out and raise the flag of your country," it said on Facebook.
A 45-year-old Cairo shopkeeper, who gave her name as Samaa, said at a polling station in downtown Cairo she was supporting Sisi. "Our country can now only be handled by a military man, we need order."
But voters were scarce. An army officer reading a newspaper outside the same polling station said: "You want to speak with voters? Do you see any voters? I don't know why they're not coming, maybe they reject politics."
Khaled Dawood, a liberal activist, accused the electoral commission and the government of running a chaotic election.
"The feeling is that the result is known in advance and this kind of festival they were creating for Sisi backfired because people no longer buy into this propaganda.
"People in Mubarak's days did not participate because they knew that their vote wouldn't make a difference and that is what is happening now," he said.
Despite an official campaign to bring out more voters, Reuters reporters found polling places were thinly attended.
Egyptians gave various reasons for the lack of enthusiasm.
The Muslim Brotherhood, believed to have one million members, 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.
Young secular activists, including those who backed Mursi