CAIRO - Egyptian authorities scrambled to rescue the country's presidential election from the embarrassment of low voter turnout that has dented former army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's hopes for an enthusiastic show of public support. Few people trickled to the polls Wednesday even after the balloting was extended for a third day.
Estimates reported by pro-el-Sissi media put turnout so far since Monday at 38 to 44 percent, well below the nearly 52 percent turnout in the 2012 election won by the Islamist Mohammed Morsi, the president whom el-Sissi ousted last summer.
In his last campaign TV interview last week, el-Sissi set the bar even higher, saying he wanted more than 45 million voters to cast ballots, a turnout of more than 80 percent - to "show the world."
El-Sissi is considered certain to win the race, perhaps by a landslide. But turnout is key because he is looking to prove to critics at home and abroad that his ouster of Morsi and his subsequent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists reflected the will of the people.
Critics say the lack of enthusiasm at the polls is in part due to deep apathy among even el-Sissi supporters, knowing that his victory is a foregone conclusion. Others say it shows deep discontent with el-Sissi, not just among his Islamist foes but also among a broader section of the public that says he has no solutions for Egypt's woes and fears he will return Egypt to the autocratic ways of Hosni Mubarak.
The tepid polling is particularly embarrassing because the government and media have been whipping up adulation for el-Sissi the past 10 months, depicting him as a warrior against terrorism and the only person able to tackle Egypt's woeful economy, high unemployment, inflation and instability.
El-Sissi's supporters in the Egyptian media have been in a panic the past two days. Political talk show hosts and newscasters have been berating people to vote, warning that otherwise the Brotherhood will be encouraged to step up its challenge to the new government.
Prominent TV talk show host Amr Adeeb angrily said that by not voting, Egyptians might as well "go directly to the prison and return Mohammed Morsi to power. Tell him 'Your excellency, President Mohammed Morsi, please come out and rule us.'"
The abrupt decision by the election commission Tuesday to add another day of voting raised complaints that authorities were tipping the playing field in el-Sissi's favor.
U.S.-based Democracy International, which has been observing the vote, said Wednesday that the extension "raises more questions about the independence of the election commission, the impartiality of the government, and the integrity of Egypt's electoral process."
It said its observer teams outside of Cairo had ended their mission as scheduled Tuesday, meaning they would not be observing polls Wednesday. Some other international monitoring teams also left the country, since they had only planned for two days of voting, though EU monitors continued to observe.
The campaign of el-Sissi's sole opponent in the race, leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, protested the extension, saying it aimed to "distort" the will of the people. It also pulled its representatives from polling stations Wednesday in protest against what it called intimidation and sometimes arrests of its campaign workers.
Only a handful of voters or none at all were at polling centers in multiple districts toured by Associated Press reporters Wednesday. At some, music played from tents and kids painted Egyptian flags or el-Sissi's name on their faces, while occasionally a voter drifted into the station. TV images beamed live from more than a dozen locations across Egypt showed similar scenes.
"People are lazy, depressed or frustrated. They knew what the result will be even before the vote," said Amani Fikry, a manager in a privately-owned company who said she voted earlier.. "They are exhausted from three years of constant troubles."
In Cairo's Sayeda Zeinab district, loudspeakers played patriotic songs at an empty polling center. Two el-Sissi backers scribbled words of support on posters of the candidate that had been defaced with insulting graffiti.
"Sissi doesn't need a program," said one of them, Mohammed Hussein. "We just want security."
Morsi's Brotherhood supporters and other Islamists are boycotting the vote, together with many of the youths who took part in the uprising that toppled Mubarak in 2011.
"Where are the youth? What do they want? Do they want to destroy Egypt?" Said Sayyed, a laundry worker in his 70s, said, bemoaning the boycott.
Tarek Shebli, a judge on the election commission, told the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper on Wednesday that 21 million of the 54 million registered voters had cast ballots - a 38 percent turnout.
Two pro-military private TV stations, CBC and Al-Hayat, and el-Sissi's campaign put out figures they said they obtained from commission officials, showing 24 million voted, or 44 percent.
Those rates are lower than the 2012 turnout. But since the overwhelming majority of votes are expected to go to el-Sissi, it would likely mean he garnered more than the 13 million votes that went to Morsi in his narrow victory over a former Mubarak-era prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq.