Egypt extends vote for president amid low turnout reports

Egypt gave voters an extra day to cast ballots for a president Tuesday, in a surprise move amid a reportedly low turnout in the first election since the overthrow of the Islamist leader.

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the ex-army chief who toppled Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last year, is the clear frontrunner. But his campaign had hoped for a large turnout as a decisive show of support.

After reports of a meagre turnout on Monday's first day of voting, his backers and sympathetic media harangued people to go and vote as Islamists had urged a boycott.

One television anchor, the ultra-nationalist Tawfiq Okasha, went as far as suggesting those who fail to vote should "be shot".

The decision to extend the voting into Wednesday was made to "give a chance to the largest possible number of voters to cast their ballots," said an electoral official.

The commission said it extended the election because of a "heatwave that resulted in a crowding of voters during the evening hours".

A comfortable win for Sisi over his sole rival, the leftist Hamdeen Sabbahi, has never been seriously in doubt.

As polling stations closed at 1800 GMT, Sabbahi slammed the extension, saying it raised "questions... about the integrity of the process".

And Sisi's campaign itself filed a complaint against the extension, it said in a statement without elaborating.

Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, subjected to a police crackdown that has killed hundreds of its supporters, called for boycott and said it would not recognise the outcome.

So too have key activists behind the 2011 uprising that toppled long-time strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2011. They fear Sisi is an autocrat in the making.

The interior ministry said the first day's turnout was about 16 million out of the country's 53 million eligible voters.

Interim prime minister Ibrahim Mahlab denied there was a low turnout, saying "participation is good".

But some Cairo polling stations were deserted on Tuesday morning.

"I don't want to be part of those responsible for all those people who died," Tarek Salim told AFP at a Cairo cafe.

Another abstainer, Diaa Hussein, complained there was no real choice. "Sisi didn't leave a chance for anyone else to win," he said.

Gamal Abdel Gawad, an analyst at the American University of Cairo, said the extension was unnecessary and "affects the credibility of the election".

"When the result of an election is already known, there is very little incentive for voters to come out and vote."

- 'World is watching' -

Sisi had issued a personal plea for a large turnout on Monday after casting his own ballot.

"The entire world is watching us, how Egyptians are writing history and their future today and tomorrow," he said.

The rival candidates have portrayed the vote as a choice between stability and the freedoms promised by the pro-democracy uprisings in the region.

Egypt, the Arab world's most populous nation, has been rocked by turmoil since the 2011 uprising which has ravaged the economy and vital tourism sector.

Sisi's ouster of Morsi on July 3 triggered the worst peacetime bloodshed in Egypt's recent history, but the ex-army chief has vowed to stamp out the violence.

A big security force deployment prevented any major polling day incidents.

"We need an iron fist to restore the situation," said 63-year-old engineer Kamal Mohamed Aziz, who voted for Sisi.

But civil servant Karim el-Demerdash said he gave his vote to Sabbahi to preserve the gains of the 2011 uprising.

"I am sure that the election results are already decided but this is the last attempt to bring the revolution into power," he said.

Sisi has said "true democracy" will take a couple of decades, and suggested he will not tolerate protests disrupting the economy.

He has also pledged to eliminate the Brotherhood, which won every election following Mubarak's overthrow after being banned for decades.

"Forgery will never grant legitimacy to a butcher nor will it lessen the determination of revolutionaries," the Brotherhood said.

The Islamist movement has been decapitated by a police crackdown that has killed more than 1,400 people and left all of its top leaders in jail or exile.

Morsi himself has been detained and put on trial.

"This election will not wipe the slate clean after 10 months of gross human rights violations," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui of Amnesty International.