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Egyptians vote in extended poll after low turnout

Egyptians voted on Wednesday in an extended presidential election seen as a plebiscite on the ex-army chief, after turnout fell below that in the poll won by the Islamist leader he ousted.

CAIRO: Egyptians voted on Wednesday in an extended presidential election seen as a plebiscite on the ex-army chief, after turnout fell below that in the poll won by the Islamist leader he ousted.

The move to extend polling by a day raises further questions about the democratic credentials of an election already marred by a deadly crackdown on the main opposition, experts said.

The electoral commission said that over the scheduled two days of polling Monday and Tuesday just 37 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots -- well below the nearly 52 per cent who voted in the 2012 election that brought Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi to power.

The low turnout came despite a personal appeal from retired field marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who had been seeking vindication for his overthrow of Morsi, Egypt's only freely elected president, after a single turbulent year in power.

Sisi, who is expected to win in a landslide against his sole rival, leftist leader Hamdeen Sabbahi, had urged "40, 45 (million) or even more" of Egypt's 53 million eligible voters to turn out to give credibility to an election boycotted by Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and influential secular groups.

After reports of meagre numbers at polling stations on the first day of voting on Monday, Sisi's backers in the state-run media appealed to people to go out and vote.

An electoral official said polling had been extended to "give a chance to the largest possible number of voters to cast their ballots."

On Wednesday, several Cairo polling stations visited by AFP were nearly deserted in the initial hours of voting.

"They didn't get enough votes, so they extended polling into a third day," complained filmmaker Mohamed Ali Hagar, who said he would stay away regardless.

"All elections in this country are rigged."

"The state is searching for votes," said a front-page headline of Al-Masry Al-Youm, a newspaper that usually backs Sisi.

The extension of polling casts doubt on the vote's credibility, experts said.

It "raises more questions about the independence of the electoral commission, the impartiality of the government, and the integrity of Egypt's electoral process," said Democracy International, a US-based observer mission.

That echoed criticism from Sabbahi, who said on Tuesday that the extension raises "questions... about the integrity of the process".

Sisi's campaign team too filed a complaint against the move, suggesting an extra day of polling might be a burden on voters.

"On a national level, the state has argued that the roadmap is backed by a majority of Egyptian people," said Hisham Hellyar, associate fellow at The Royal United Services Institute, referring to the military-installed authorities' plan to return Egypt to elected rule.

A very low turnout "would make the international position for Egypt difficult. People (the authorities) were making the argument that democracy is on the way," he said.

Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, which had championed a boycott of the election, hailed the low turnout.

"The great Egyptian people have given a new slap to the military coup's roadmap and... written the death certificate of the military coup," said its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party.

The Brotherhood has been subjected to a massive crackdown that has killed hundreds of its supporters and seen it designated a "terrorist" organisation.

All of the movement's main leaders are now in jail or exile, and Morsi himself is being tried on charges that could carry the death penalty.

Several key activists behind the uprising that ousted long-time strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2011 had also called for a boycott, charging that Sisi was a new autocrat in the making.

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

He has said "true democracy" in the Arab world's most populous nation will take a couple of decades.

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