Egypt was wrapping up a presidential election Tuesday with fears of a low turnout threatening to cloud the expected victory of the ex-army chief who toppled its first freely elected leader.
As polls opened for the second and final day of voting, authorities announced that they were declaring a public holiday and extending polling hours until 1900 GMT to encourage voters to turn out.
A comfortable win for former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi over his sole rival leftist Hamdeen Sabbahi has never been seriously in doubt.
But Sisi and his supporters have repeatedly called for a large turnout to give credibility to his expected victory and his ouster of elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July last year.
Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, subjected to a brutal police crackdown and designated a terror group last December, has urged a boycott of the election.
So too have key activists behind the Arab Spring uprising that toppled long-time strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2011, who fear Sisi is an autocrat in the making.
The interior ministry said that turnout on the first day of voting reached about 16 million out of the country’s 53 million eligible voters.
But several Cairo polling stations visited by AFP were deserted in the first hours of voting on Tuesday.
Sisi issued a personal plea for a large turnout after casting his ballot on Monday.
“The entire world is watching us, how Egyptians are writing history and their future today and tomorrow,” he said surrounded by cheering supporters.
Many view the vote as a choice between stability and the freedoms promised by the Arab Spring.
The Arab world’s most populous nation has been rocked by turmoil since the uprising which has ravaged the economy and its vital tourism sector.
Sisi’s ouster of Morsi last year triggered the worst peacetime bloodshed in recent Egyptian history but the retired field marshal has vowed to stamp out the violence.
A big security force deployment prevented any major polling day incidents.
A small bomb exploded in a north Cairo district on Tuesday without causing any casualties, the interior ministry said.
“We need an iron fist to restore the situation,” said 63-year-old engineer Kamal Mohamed Aziz, who had come with his wife to vote for Sisi.
“Security is the number one (concern). It is security that we are missing,” said his wife Nevine.
But civil servant Karim el-Demerdash said he had voted for Sisi’s sole challenger Sabbahi to try 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” would take a couple of decades, and suggested he would not tolerate protests disrupting the economy.
He also pledged to eliminate the Brotherhood, which won every election following Mubarak’s overthrow after being banned for decades.
– ‘Gross human rights violations’ –
“Forgery will never grant legitimacy to a butcher nor will it lessen the determination of revolutionaries,” the Brotherhood said.
The Brotherhood has been decapitated by a police crackdown that has killed more than 1,400 people.
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,” Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, said.
Hundreds of soldiers and policemen have also been killed in militant attacks since Morsi’s overthrow, with the deadliest claimed by an Al-Qaeda-inspired group based in the restive Sinai Peninsula.
Sisi’s sole rival Sabbahi, a veteran dissident, has vowed to defend the democratic aspirations of the 2011 revolt.
Sabbahi’s campaign team denounced “various irregularities” during voting Monday, including the arrest of one of its members in Cairo.
Sabbahi has raised fears Egypt could see more repression than under Mubarak.
“What tourist would come to a country where we have demonstrations like this?” he said ahead of the election.
The poll will be followed by parliamentary elections later this year. AFP / Gulf Times