CAIRO — Egypt’s military-backed government showed signs of panic Tuesday at the conspicuously low voter turnout in the presidential election that was expected to confer new legitimacy on the rule of Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the former army field marshal.
On the second of two scheduled days of voting, the government rushed to get more Egyptians to the polls and took the extraordinary step of extending the voting by an additional day. First, officials had extended voting by an hour, to 10 p.m., but when the number of voters failed to increase by the evening, the government went even further.
A holiday was declared for state and private employees, banks and the stock market. Train and subway fares were suspended. State television said that the police would help transport the elderly or the sick to polling stations, and it repeated admonishments from Muslim and Christian leaders about a religious duty to vote.
Officials said that the government would fine those who did not vote up to $70 — a large sum for most Egyptians — and, unlike in the past, that the fines would be enforced.
“People, come out so that you do not complain later,” Tarek Shebl, an election commissioner, pleaded in a television interview.
Talk show hosts who support Sissi — an excitable crew who dominate the airwaves — warned breathlessly that the low turnout would repudiate the former general’s ouster of the nation’s democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, last summer.
“What are we going to say to the world?” talk show host Amr Adib screamed in apparent despair during his Monday night broadcast. “We have to open the prison, reinstate Mohammed Morsi, and tell him, ‘Your Excellency, Mr. President Morsi, go ahead and rule.’”
The removal of Morsi is the event that introduced Sissi to the Egyptian public and remains his principal achievement, and his supporters had counted on a decent turnout this week to vindicate his claim to represent a majority of Egyptians.
But Islamist and liberal groups urged Egyptians to boycott the election, arguing that the vote was unfair and illegitimate. Most potential candidates refused to enter the race because the government appeared to back Sissi. He faced only one weak and ideologically similar competitor, Nasserite populist Hamdeen Sabahi, leaving little suspense about the outcome.
The only question was turnout: Would Sissi beat the 13.2 million votes that Morsi received to win the 2012 presidential election? Or the 6.3 million votes reportedly recorded by former president Hosni Mubarak in his uncompetitive reelection seven years before that?
Despite the official threats and news media hectoring, polling stations remained virtually deserted on Tuesday in Cairo, where support for Sissi is likely to be strongest. In previous elections, the capital was the stronghold of support for military candidates like Sissi.
Mustafa Bakry, a politician and television talk show host who has led official rallies for Sissi, declared in a Monday night broadcast, “We are in a state of war, and turnout is the headline.”
“Anybody who does not vote is giving the kiss of life to the terrorists,” he said. “Those who do not come out are traitors, traitors, traitors who are selling out this country.”
On another talk show, a viewer calling in broke down in tears. “The polling stations are empty, and I don’t know what to do,” she wailed. “I will go mad, I will die.”
Adib was so distraught that one caller tried to console him. “Please, Mr. Amr, smile, do not fear,” the caller told him, promising that voters would go to the polls.
Analysts said the low turnout underscored the scale of the challenge Sissi will face if he hopes to unify the deeply divided country, still reeling from the ouster of two presidents in three years.
Sissi has said that his move against Morsi was an extension of the 2011 democratic uprising.
But the new government has said it must first deal with a sometimes violent Islamist backlash before it can address demands for police reform, freedom of expression or social justice.
“Sissi is not Nasser,” said Samer Shehata, an Egyptian political scientist at the University of Oklahoma, referring to former President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
“He no longer has that kind of popularity. His shine is quickly fading,” Shehata said, citing recent polling data. “Egypt’s political divisions are deeper than ever, and his authoritarianism is increasingly obvious.”