CAIRO: Polls closed Wednesday in an Egyptian presidential election seen as a plebiscite on the ex-army chief frontrunner, after voting was extended when turnout fell below that won by the Islamist leader he deposed.
Ballot counting has already begun, and preliminary results are expected overnight, with ex-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi certain to win an overwhelming majority against leftist rival Hamdeen Sabbahi.
The move to extend polling for a day drew further criticisms of an election already marred by a deadly crackdown on supporters of deposed Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi.
An electoral official said on Tuesday that turnout was about 37 percent, well below the 52 percent of voters who cast their ballots in the 2012 election Morsi won.
The low turnout came despite a personal appeal from retired field marshal Sisi, who had been seeking vindication for his July overthrow of Morsi, Egypt's only freely elected president, after a single turbulent year in power.
Sisi had urged "40, 45 (million) or even more" of Egypt's 53 million eligible voters to turn out to give credibility to an election boycotted by Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and secular opposition groups.
After reports of a meagre numbers at polling stations on the first day of voting Monday, Sisi's backers in the state-run media appealed to people to go out and vote.
An electoral official said polling had been extended to "give a chance to the largest possible number of voters to cast their ballots."
On Wednesday, several Cairo polling stations visited by AFP were nearly deserted.
"They didn't get enough votes, so they extended polling into a third day," complained filmmaker Mohamed Ali Hagar, who said he would stay away regardless.
"The state is searching for votes," said a front-page headline of Al-Masry Al-Youm, a newspaper that usually backs Sisi.
The extension of polling casts doubt on the vote's credibility, experts said.
It "raises more questions about the independence of the electoral commission, the impartiality of the government, and the integrity of Egypt's electoral process," said Democracy International, a US-based observer mission.
That echoed criticism from Sabbahi, who said on Tuesday that the extension raises "questions... about the integrity of the process".
Sisi's campaign team too filed a complaint against the move, suggesting an extra day of polling might be a burden on voters.
"On a national level, the state has argued that the roadmap is backed by a majority of Egyptian people," said Hisham Hellyar, associate fellow at The Royal United Services Institute, referring to the military-installed authorities' plan to return Egypt to elected rule.
A very low turnout "would make the international position for Egypt difficult. People (the authorities) were making the argument that democracy is on the way," he said.
Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, which had championed a boycott of the election, hailed the low turnout.
"The great Egyptian people have given a new slap to the military coup's roadmap and... written the death certificate of the military coup," said its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party.
The Brotherhood has been subjected to a massive crackdown that has killed hundreds of its supporters and seen it designated a "terrorist" organisation.
All of the movement's main leaders are now in jail or exile, and Morsi himself is being tried on charges that could carry the death penalty.
Prominent activists behind the uprising that ousted long-time strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2011 had also called for a boycott, charging Sisi was a new autocrat in the making.
Sisi's ouster of Morsi on July 3 last year triggered the worst peacetime bloodshed in Egypt's recent history, but the former army chief has vowed to stamp out the violence.
He has said "true democracy" in the Arab world's most populous nation will take a couple of decades.