CAIRO — The government and media harangued voters to go to the polls Tuesday in the second and final day of Egypt's presidential election, worried that turnout was weaker than expected in a vote in which the front-runner, former army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, is trying to garner an overwhelming show of support.
There were no official figures on turnout in the previous day's voting. But monitoring groups said Monday saw only moderate voting, and often thin or non-existent voting in some areas, particularly where Islamists — el-Sissi's top opponents — dominate.
El-Sissi is poised for an almost certain victory. But the 59-year-old retired field marshal and his supporters have sought a large turnout to send a message to the West — as well as to his domestic opponents — that his ouster last year of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi was not a coup but a popular revolution, similar to the 2011 uprising that ended autocrat Hosni Mubarak's almost 30-year-long rule.
For the past 10 months, Egypt's government and private TV networks, newspapers and radio have been idolizing el-Sissi as the nation's savior and presenting him as the only one able to lead Egypt. They have praised authorities' fierce crackdown on Morsi's followers, which has killed hundreds, as part of what they called the war on terrorism.
A low turnout would be a heavy symbolic blow. The Brotherhood and its allies are boycotting the vote, but if it appears non-Islamist voters also failed to cast ballots, it would suggest many Egyptians are skeptical of el-Sissi despite the frenzy for him whipped up by the state and media. El-Sissi's only opponent in the race is left-wing politician Hamdeen Sabahi, who finished third in the 2012 presidential vote.
After the impression that Monday's voting was thin, many of the news channels' numerous political talk shows furiously berated people who hadn't voted.
"By sitting at home, they are wasting what we have accomplished the past year ... our war on terrorism," Hayat el-Dardiri, host of a talk show on the pro-military Faraeen TV, said on her Monday evening broadcast.
She pointed to Monday's images of dancing and singing by el-Sissi supporters who did turn out at the polls and chided those who didn't. "What democratic celebration, you losers! Are you just happy to watch people dancing? Where are the people?"
On Tuesday, many TVs were showing empty polling stations.
Egypt's deep divisions were on full display in the first day of voting Monday. At some Cairo polling stations, lines of el-Sissi supporters waved Egyptian flags and wore clothes in the national red-white-and-black colors. Men and women, including ones wearing the conservative Muslim veil, danced to pro-military pop songs.
In strongholds of the Brotherhood — which has dominated all other elections since Mubarak's ouster — the polls were virtually deserted. Many of el-Sissi's secular critics, who supported Morsi's removal but now fear the former army chief will enshrine a Mubarak-style autocracy, appeared to also have stayed away from the polls.
Mostafa Bakri, a former lawmaker and campaigner for el-Sissi, told warned viewers that Brotherhood supporters are readying to take to the streets to protest, but won't succeed if people were out voting in big numbers.
"We want a strong president and able to face the world," said Bakri on Sada el-Balad TV. "It will not work, it will not work, it will not work to have a presidential candidate win with fewer votes than what the ousted Morsi got ... We must surpass this benchmark."
The 2012 presidential election had a turnout of just under 52 percent. Morsi won, garnering around 13 million votes, narrowly beating out Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq.
The government tried to beef up turnout. After the first day of voting, it abruptly declared Tuesday a public holiday to give millions of government employees time to go cast ballots and extended voting hours by an hour to 10 p.m. There are roughly 5.5 million government workers in this country of about 90 million people.
Banks and the stock market were also given the day off. Interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab appealed to the private sector to follow suit.
Election commission officials warned they will implement a rarely applied rule fining all able-bodied voters who do not cast ballots. The fines, set at $72, are a hefty sum for most Egyptians.
In the southern city of Assuit, cars with loudspeakers called on residents to vote. Local officials and senior police officers met with heads of families and local dignitaries to ensure participation and sent buses to ease transportation from villages to polling stations, local officials who attended the meetings said.
Nasser Amin, a member of Egypt's National Human Rights Council — one of the domestic groups observing the vote — said the average turnout from a number of stations he visited in Cairo on Monday ranged between 10 and 12 percent. Local media used a higher figure, estimating that 20 to 30 percent based also on average indicators.
Mohammed Mahsoub, a member of the Islamist al-Wasat party and of the Brotherhood-led coalition against Morsi's removal, wrote on his Twitter account: "Those shocked at the people's abstention ... must remember that this people tasted freedom and will not go back and will accept no less and are determined to restore it soon."
El-Sissi supporters on TV presented multiple possible explanations for the thin voting. Temperatures were soaring Monday and Tuesday. Laws make it difficult for people to vote if they are not living in their hometowns. Even beefed up security at the polls — meant to reassure voters — may have intimidated them instead, some argued.
Around 500,000 soldiers and police deployed to protect the polls. At some stations, security forces wore body armor and masks, sporting heavy weapons from behind sandbags, while helicopters circled over Cairo.
On Tuesday, there was no rush to the polls. Many polling centers around the capital, Cairo, appeared deserted, though there is typically an increase after sunset when temperatures fall.
Standing with over a dozen other women outside a polling station in Cairo's heavily populated district of Imbaba, Seham Sayed was adamant that her favorite is the best for her country.
"We want Egypt, and el-Sissi is Egypt, Egypt, and again Egypt," the 40-year-old said.
At a nearby kiosk that sells drinks and chips, vendor Ahmed Rashad Ismail said he is not voting. The 21-year-old voted in 2012 for Sabahi but thinks he has no chance this time around.
"I don't like anyone," he said. "We wanted to elect a civilian. A military man may turn out to be like Mubarak, a criminal who stays for a long time."