Egyptian authorities abruptly extended the country's presidential election into a third day of voting amid reports of turnout apparently too low to give former military chief Abdel Fattah Sisi the broad mandate he seeks.
Tuesday's announcement, hours before the polls were to have closed, followed a series of steps suggesting the government and the Sisi camp were worried about lackluster polling figures. Earlier, public employees had been given the day off Tuesday to ensure they could vote, and polling hours were extended to late into the evening.
Election authorities, announcing the added day of voting for Wednesday, said it was to make sure that people who needed to travel to the locale where they were registered had time to do so.
By midday Tuesday, pro-government talk-show hosts were haranguing anyone who chose to sit out the polling.
“I kiss your feet and beg you to go out and vote,” Tawfik Okasha, a hardline Sisi backer, said on his Al-Faraeen channel. “What else to you want? Do you want me to strip naked and beg?”
Though a win for Sisi is widely regarded as a foregone conclusion, his backers are doing all they can to ensure a turnout large enough to give credibility to the claim that the former field marshal was obeying the will of the people when he ousted unpopular President Mohamed Morsi nearly 11 months ago. Opponents are showing their disdain by refusing to cast ballots.
Morsi, an Islamist, was Egypt’s first freely elected president, and his supporters consider his removal a military coup. Secular critics say Sisi’s de facto rule since July marks a return to the authoritarian ways of Hosni Mubarak, the dictator of decades’ standing who was forced out by a popular uprising three years ago.
Backers of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood have waged a months-long campaign of street protests to demand his reinstatement, clashing weekly and sometimes daily with security forces. The interim government’s response -- a harsh crackdown that has left thousands of Brotherhood backers dead or jailed -- drew international criticism, but little outrage from turmoil-weary Egyptians.
Sisi has pledged that the Brotherhood, now banned and designated a terrorist group, will not be allowed to reemerge as a political force. The movement urged its supporters to boycott the election, as did some secular dissidents.
Despite the country’s deep political polarization, the first day of polling passed without any major outbreak of violence. Again on Tuesday, army helicopters thundered low over residential neighborhoods, and police and soldiers clustered at the entrances to polling places.
Sisi’s sole opposition is liberal politician Hamdeen Sabahi. Although he is given almost no chance of winning, his backers were undaunted.
“Even if we all know that Sisi will win it, we want Sabahi to win a considerable amount of votes,” said Khaled Gayar, a 29-year-old market researcher. “Why not have a 60-40 vote for Sisi, instead of him winning over 90% of the votes? We need to maintain an opposition bloc.”
For some, scorching temperatures made the vote an exercise in endurance. Temperatures in Cairo on Tuesday surged to above 100 degrees.
At some locales, canopies protected voters from the sun, but in others, those waiting to cast ballots fashioned sunshades from anything at hand. At one polling place, a red-faced woman emptied an entire bottle of mineral water onto her head, which was covered in a tight-fitting scarf. Then she smiled, looking relieved.
Unofficial results were expected to be reported within a few days, with the formal count to be unveiled next week.
Hassan is a special correspondent.