- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 28, 2014

CAIRO (AP) - 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 el-Sissi’s hopes for an enthusiastic show of public support. Few people trickled to the polls Wednesday even after the balloting was extended for a third day.

Estimates reported by pro-el-Sissi media put turnout since Monday at 38 to 44 percent, well below the nearly 52 percent in the 2012 election won by the Mohammed Morsi, the Islamist president el-Sissi ousted last summer.

In his final campaign TV interview last week, el-Sissi 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” the extent of his popular backing.

El-Sissi is considered certain to win the race, perhaps by a landslide. But turnout is key because he is looking to prove to critics at home and abroad that his ouster of Morsi and his subsequent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists reflected the will of the people.

Critics say the lack of enthusiasm at the polls is in part due to deep apathy among even el-Sissi supporters, knowing that his victory is a foregone conclusion. Others say it shows discontent with el-Sissi, not just among his Islamist foes but also among a broader section of the public that says he has no concrete plans for Egypt’s woes and fears he will return Egypt to the autocratic ways of Hosni Mubarak.

The tepid polling is particularly embarrassing because the government and media have been whipping up adulation for el-Sissi over the past 10 months, depicting him as a warrior against terrorism and the only person able to tackle Egypt’s economic problems, high unemployment, inflation and instability.

El-Sissi’s supporters in the Egyptian media have been in a panic the past two days. Political talk show hosts and newscasters have urged people to vote, warning that otherwise the Brotherhood will be encouraged to step up its challenge to the new government.

Prominent TV talk show host Amr Adeeb angrily said that by not voting, Egyptians might as well “go directly to the prison and return Mohammed Morsi to power.”

“Tell him ‘Your excellency, President Mohammed Morsi, please come out and rule us,’” he said.

The abrupt decision by the election commission to add another day of voting raised complaints that authorities were tipping the playing field in el-Sissi’s favor.

U.S.-based Democracy International, which has been observing the vote, said the extension “raises more questions about the independence of the election commission, the impartiality of the government, and the integrity of Egypt’s electoral process.”

It said its observer teams outside of Cairo had ended their mission as scheduled on Tuesday, meaning they were not observing polls Wednesday. Some other international monitoring teams also left the country, since they had only planned for two days of voting, though EU monitors stayed on.

The campaign of el-Sissi’s sole opponent in the race, leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, protested the extension, saying it aimed to “distort” the will of the people. It also pulled its representatives from polling stations Wednesday in protest against what it called a campaign of intimidation and arrests of its campaign workers.

Sabahi’s spokesman, Hossam Moenis, told ONTV network that a member of the campaign has been referred to a military tribunal.

“We are digging a channel for democracy … in the face of an undemocratic project,” he said. “The same mentality that we thought we managed to topple on Jan. 25, is back and ruling,” - a reference to Mubarak’s ouster on Jan. 25, 2011.

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