CAIRO — After Egypt's revolution three years ago, so many voters eager for democracy turned out for elections that officials had to scramble to accommodate the throngs. On Tuesday, the military-backed government confronted the opposite problem: Officials extended a scheduled two-day vote for a third day not because of long lines, but because so few people had shown up.
Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the former army field marshal who deposed Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's first freely elected president, is still universally expected to win by a landslide over leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi. Yet the disappointing turnout has upended his supporters' hopes that the vote would grant him new legitimacy after the ouster.
When polling places around the nation remained largely empty on the second day of voting, signs of panic swept the government. Officials initially extended voting hours on Tuesday by an hour, to 10 p.m. Then, a holiday was declared for state and private employees, as well as for banks and the stock market. Train and subway fares were suspended. State television said that the police would help the elderly or the sick get to polling stations, and it repeated admonishments from Muslim and Christian leaders about a religious duty to vote.
Officials also said that the government would fine those who did not vote up to $70 — a large sum for most Egyptians — and that unlike in the past, the fines would be enforced.
Analysts said the government's scramble to increase the turnout undermined the endlessly repeated premise of the new military-backed order: that el-Sissi had the passionate support of an overwhelming majority of Egyptians to oust Morsi and to assume leadership.
The extension of voting "looks desperate," said Michele Dunne, a researcher on Egypt at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The low turnout may reflect the reluctance of Egyptians to return to such predictable, scripted elections after the fiercely free and competitive races held after the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. But several analysts said the lack of participation was also the latest indication that support for el-Sissi was weaker than his supporters in the media claim.