CAIRO: Egypt's presidential election was extended by a day on Tuesday in an effort to boost lower than expected turnout that threatened to undermine the credibility of the frontrunner, former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
After Sisi called for record voter participation, low turnout would be seen at home and abroad as an immediate setback for the field marshal who toppled Egypt's first freely elected leader, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Mursi.
The two-day vote was originally due to conclude on Tuesday at 10 p.m. (1900 GMT) but was extended until Wednesday, state media quoted an official in the body overseeing the election as saying. The extension would allow the "greatest number possible" to vote, including Egyptians who need to return home to vote.
Sisi faces only one challenger in the election: the leftist Hamdeen Sabahi, who came third in a 2012 vote won by Mursi and was seen as a long-shot in the race against an army man who became popular after ending Mursi's divisive year in office.
"I was going to vote for Sisi because he will be the president anyway, and because I was grateful to him for removing the Brotherhood from power," said Hani Ali, 27, who works in the private sector.
"But now I won't go as I felt people are unhappy with the chaos of the past months and are not as pro-Sisi as I thought."
Lines outside polling stations in various parts of Cairo were short, and in some cases no voters could be seen on Tuesday, the second day of voting. The polls close at 10 p.m. (1900 GMT), an hour later than planned.
It is the second time Egyptians are electing a president in two years, and it is the seventh vote or referendum since 2011.
The military-backed government had launched a determined effort to get out the vote.
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 TV commentator, a government loyalist from the Mubarak days, said people who did not vote were "traitors, traitors, traitors".
Al-Azhar, a state-run body that is Egypt's highest Islamic authority, said 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.
Sisi's supporters see him as a decisive figure who can steer Egypt out of three years of turmoil. He became a hero to many for removing Mursi after mass protests against his rule.
"He is the head of the army, he is respected, he is not corrupt or a thief so am voting for Sisi," said Douaa Mohammad 34, mother of two, as she waited to vote in the Cairo working class district of Imbaba.
Sisi was widely seen as the most powerful figure in the interim government that has waged a bloody crackdown on the Brotherhood, declaring it an enemy of the state, and putting its leaders on trial on charges that carry the death penalty.
He has announced his priorities are fighting Islamist militants who have taken up arms since Mursi's removal, and reviving an economy battered by more than three years of turmoil that has driven away tourists and investors.
HERO TO SOME, VILLAIN TO OTHERS
Sisi had been lionized by state and privately owned media, which have helped build a personality cult around the former intelligence chief about whom little was known until last year: his face now appears on chocolates, posters and key-rings.
On Sisi's Facebook page, admirers posted hundreds of pictures of themselves wearing Egyptian flags or patriotic T-shirts, with ink on their fingers to show they had voted for him. Others had banners saying "long live Egypt", Sisi's slogan.
He is the sixth military man to run Egypt since the army overthrew the monarch in 1952.
The Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies, who view Sisi as the mastermind of a coup against Mursi, had called for a boycott. The security forces killed hundreds of Mursi's supporters and arrested an estimated 20,000 activists, most of them Islamists, in a crackdown since his removal.
Some secular dissidents have also been jailed, often for breaking a new protest law criticised as a threat to free assembly, alienating some liberal Egyptians who were glad that Mursi was overthrown.
In Mursi's home village, only a fraction of registered voters had cast ballots at two polling stations visited by a Reuters journalist on Tuesday afternoon, the election officials overseeing the voting said.
Voters trickled in at a rate of five an hour. Security forces deployed heavily in the village of Al-Adwa in the Nile Delta province of Sharkiya, northeast of Cairo.
A poster declared Mursi still the legitimate president of Egypt, urging voters to boycott "the elections of blood", while graffiti attacked Sisi as a traitor and killer.
Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood has been declared a terrorist organisation by the state, which accuses it of a role in attacks that have killed several hundred members of the security forces since last year. The Brotherhood denies any role in the violence.
In the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, a Muslim Brotherhood leader in her 40s welcomed the low turnout.
"This boycott gives us hope that Sisi will not be a real president and be able to govern," she said, declining to give her name for fear of arrest.
But Sisi, 59, enjoys the backing of many Egyptian Muslims attracted by his pious demeanour - he has presented himself as a defender of Islam - and Coptic Christians whose churches were attacked after Mursi's downfall and who see him as a protector.
"I am voting for Sisi because we need to get rid of the Muslim Brotherhood. He stood behind the people to overthrow this garbage (the Brothers). He will improve security and the economy," said Adnan al-Gindi, a 54-year-old dentist, as he waited to vote in the affluent Cairo district of Zamalek.
Sisi's challenger Sabahi came third in the 2012 election won by Mursi. Other candidates in that election did not run this time, saying the climate was not conducive to democracy following a crackdown on Islamist and other opposition groups.
Sabahi's campaign complained of many violations, including physical assaults on its representatives, and "intervention by police and army", on the first day of voting.
In the industrial city of Helwan, south of Cairo, many unemployed and retired men sitting in coffee shops said they were not voting.
"I've voted plenty of times," said one man, a 59-year-old security guard at a factory who refused to give his name, saying only "there is fear".
The limited showing contrasted with parliamentary and presidential elections held after Mubarak's overthrow, when voter lines were measured in the hundreds and stretched far into the streets leading to the polling stations.
Mursi won more than 13 million votes, or 26 percent of the electorate, in 2012 in a vote where turnout was 52 percent.
Some local media presented the election as a success.
"Egyptians make history," declared Al-Ahram, the state's flagship newspaper, showing a long line of men waiting to vote.