(MENAFN - The Peninsula) Egyptian authorities scrambled to rescue the country's presidential election from the embarrassment of low voter turnout that has dented former army chief Abdel-Fattah Al Sisi's hopes for an enthusiastic show of public support. Few people trickled to the polls yesterday even after the balloting was extended for a third day.
Estimates reported by pro-Sisi media put turnout so far since Monday at 38 to 44 percent, well below the nearly 52 percent turnout in the 2012 election won by the Islamist Mohamed Mursi, the president whom Sisi ousted last summer. In his last campaign TV interview last week, Sisi set the bar even higher, saying he wanted more than 45 million voters to cast ballots, a turnout of more than 80 percent - to "show the world."
Tarek Shebli, a judge on the election commission, told the state-run Al Ahram newspaper yesterday that 21 million of the 54 million registered voters had cast ballots - a 38 percent turnout. Two pro-military private TV stations, CBC and Al Hayat, and Sisi's campaign put out figures they said they obtained from commission officials, showing 24 million voted, or 44 percent.
Sisi, who enjoyed adulation from the media and support from the military, security services and businessmen, is expected to win the election.
But a low turnout has called into question the level of support for the man who gained hero status after toppling Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood last year. His only opponent is leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi.
The nearly empty polling stations could be an early sign of trouble as the career military man prepares to take the helm of a nation where street protests have helped remove two presidents in three years.
Apathy is not the only reason for the low participation. In addition to Islamists who reject Mursi's ouster as a coup and have called for a boycott, some liberal youth activists are also staying away. Under Sisi's watch a crackdown against the Brotherhood was extended to secular-minded Egyptians.
Sisi seems to have alienated some Egyptians during television interviews in which he said it was up to ordinary citizens to step up to the plate and work hard.
But trying to impose military discipline on a nation exhausted by three years of political upheaval may have backfired.
Though many Egyptians interviewed by Reuters in working class districts during election said they wanted a strong president, others quietly explained how Sisi had lost their vote with his "tough love" message.
Billboards in rundown neighbourhoods call for austerity: "With work," read the signs, next to Sisi's smiling face. Another sign shows Sisi and the words "hard work is all I have, and all I will ask from you."
Millions of poor Egyptians already juggle several jobs, or can't follow Sisi's message because they are unemployed.
Sisi's proposals for tackling some of the most pressing challenges ring harsh, critics say, mainly because they seem to place the burden unduly on the poor.
In order to deal with a crippling energy crisis, young people can walk to work or school instead of driving or taking public transport, Sisi suggested in a meeting during his campaign with young Egyptians.
Instead of a person eating one loaf of bread, he can cut it in four so there is more to go around, he said during a television interview where he urged Egyptians to understand the "true reality".
"If money appears in my pocket to pay my bills from working more, okay. But how can I cut a loaf of bread into four? That's not a solution," complained Emad Abdelaela.
It's not just the poor who seem irritated by Sisi's prescriptions for Egypt's social and economic ills.
In the upper middle class district of Sheikh Zayed, in the Cairo desert suburbs, a Mursi supporter said Sisi would find little help from Egyptians like him. "We have an electricity crisis, and now he's telling us to conserve," said Mamdouh Ali, 30, an architect.
Sisi's ideas have become the butt of jokes, with satirical videos on YouTube poking fun at him.
The well-known Egyptian blogger known by his social media handle Big Pharaoh described Sisi's approach as "completely absurd". He said the man who commanded widespread respect in his military uniform and was hailed as a superhero is now being "scolded" by Egyptians boycotting the vote.
"The political apathy is extremely dangerous now," said Big Pharaoh. "What we are seeing now with the youth losing trust and losing faith in the political process. This is not a good thing."