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Egypt extends election voting 1 day amid low turnout

Officials also threaten fines for not voting; front-runner Sisi hoping to garner a clear mandate

Egypt's election commission on Tuesday extended voting in the presidential election for a third day amid reported low turnout.

Meanwhile government officials, media and the military — worried that turnout was weaker than expected — harangued voters to go to the polls. The front-runner, former army chief Abdel Fattah El Sisi, is trying to garner an overwhelming show of support.

Monitoring groups and Sisi's rival candidate reported low turnout by early Tuesday. Closer to sunset, numbers appeared to be increasing.

The election commission said it was extending the vote through Wednesday, citing complaints that migrant workers have been unable to vote where they reside because of laws making it difficult to do so.

Election commission officials warned that they would implement a rarely applied rule imposing fines on all able-bodied voters who do not cast ballots. The fine, $72, is a hefty sum for most Egyptians.

Sisi, 59, has been counting on a large turnout to send a message to the West — as well as his domestic opponents, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood — that his removal last year of President Mohamed Morsi was not a coup but a popular revolution, similar to the 2011 uprising that ended autocrat Hosni Mubarak's almost 30-year rule. Morsi was Egypt’s first freely elected leader.

There were no official figures on participation in the previous day's voting, but monitoring groups said Monday’s turnout was moderate in some places and often thin or nonexistent in others, particularly those dominated by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sisi's top opposition, now banned.

Nasser Amin, a member of Egypt's National Human Rights Council — one of the domestic groups observing the vote — said the average turnout from a number of stations he visited in Cairo on Monday ranged from 10 to 12 percent. Local media came up with a higher figure, estimating 20 to 30 percent.

Sisi is poised for an almost certain victory. His only rival in the race is left-wing politician Hamdeen Sabahi, who finished third in the 2012 presidential vote and is not believed capable of taking more than a symbolic number of votes.

Sabahi's office complained early on Monday that police and soldiers were refusing his representatives access to polling stations.

In one case, the Sabahi campaign said, a lawyer from the campaign's legal committee, Ahmed Hanafi Abu Zaid, was "brutally beaten" and arrested after trying to mediate in a dispute with another campaign delegate.

In a report issued May 16, the U.S.-based Carter Center expressed concerns about "the restrictive political and legal context surrounding Egypt's electoral process [and] the lack of a genuinely competitive campaign environment," which threaten the country's transition.

For the past 10 months, Sisi has had nearly unanimous support from Egypt's government and private TV networks, newspapers and radio, which have been lauding him as the nation's savior and presenting him as the only one able to lead Egypt. They have praised authorities' fierce crackdown on Morsi's followers — a move that has killed hundreds of people — as part of what they called a war on terrorism.

After the impression that Monday's voting was thin, many of the news channels' numerous political talk shows were furiously berating people who had not voted.

On Tuesday, many TVs were still showing empty polling stations.

Push to increase turnout

In Muslim Brotherhood strongholds, which backed Morsi, polling stations were virtually deserted — a harbinger of poor turnout among the country's nearly 54 million registered voters.

But a deeper blow to Sisi would be if non-Brotherhood voters also decline to cast ballots. It would suggest many Egyptians remain at least skeptical of him despite 10 months of pro-Sisi fervor whipped up by the state and media. Many of Sisi's secular critics, who supported Morsi's removal but now fear the former army chief will return the country to a Mubarak-style autocracy, appeared to have stayed away from the polls.

In 2012 the presidential election had a turnout of just under 52 percent. Morsi won, garnering about 13 million votes, narrowly beating Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq.

The government went to great lengths Tuesday to beef up turnout. After the first day of polling appeared to draw low numbers, it abruptly declared Tuesday a public holiday to give millions of government employees time to cast ballots. Banks and the stock market were also given the day off, and voting hours were extended by an hour, to 10 p.m. 

Interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab appealed to the private sector to also close for the day.

Cars with loudspeakers circled the southern city of Assuit, calling on residents to vote. Local officials and senior police officers met with heads of families and local dignitaries to ensure participation, said local officials who attended the meetings.

Sisi supporters on TV presented multiple possible explanations for the thin voting, including high temperatures and laws that make it difficult for people to vote if they do not live in their hometowns. 

At a kiosk near a voting station in Cairo, vendor Ahmed Rashad Ismail said he is not voting. The 21-year-old voted in 2012 for Sabahi but thinks there is no point this time around.

"I don't like anyone," he said. "We wanted to elect a civilian. A military man may turn out to be like Mubarak, a criminal who stays for a long time."

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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