CAIRO - Voting in Egypt's presidential election was slow on Wednesday after polling was extended for a third day in an attempt to boost turnout, raising questions about the level of support for the man forecast to win, former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
An early tour of Cairo polling stations suggested authorities would again struggle to get more people to cast their ballots. The same pattern emerged in Egypt's second city, Alexandria, Reuters reporters said.
In a country polarised since a popular uprising toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the low turnout was linked to political apathy, opposition to another military man becoming president, discontent at suppression of freedoms among liberal youth, and calls for a boycott by Islamists.
After months of adulation by the media encouraged by his supporters in government, the security services and business, many Egyptians were shocked when the election failed to produce the mass support predicted by Sisi himself.
For Sisi, who toppled President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood last year after mass protests against his rule, the stakes are high.
Poor backing in the election in his deeply divided country would mean Sisi's legitimacy as head of state of the Arab world's most populous nation would be harmed at home and abroad.
The two-day vote was originally due to conclude on Tuesday but was extended until 9 p.m. (1800 GMT) Wednesday to allow the"greatest number possible" to vote, state media reported. "The state searches for a vote," said a front-page headline in privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper.
The Democracy International observer mission said the decision to extend polling raised questions about the integrity of Egypt's electoral process. "Last-minute decisions about important election procedures, such as a decision to extend polling by an additional day, should be made only in extraordinary circumstances," said Eric Bjornlund, president of Democracy International, in a statement.
Distancing Sisi from the vote extension, seen by commentators as an embarrassing attempt to attract every last vote from a reluctant electorate, his campaign announced that he had objected to the decision.
Sisi's campaign posted picture of voters waving Egyptian flags and holding Sisi posters. "Come out and raise the flag of your country," it said on Facebook.
The decision to extend the voting by a day may prove to be a strategic blunder unless many more Egyptians turn up to vote.
A polling station with 6,200 registered voters in Cairo's working class Shubra district was empty shortly after polls opened on Wednesday, except for polling staff, soldiers and police.
"Supporters of Sisi's presidential run would have assumed that turnout would have been tremendously high, particularly given the military leadership gave its public approval in order for him to do so," said H.A. Hellyer, nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and the Royal United Services Institute in London.
"Extending voting for a third day, presumably due to a low turnout during the first two days, would belie that assumption - and may call into question the mobilisation ability of the state, including the military." Despite an official campaign to bring out more voters, polling places were thinly attended for a number of reasons.