Egypt’s government announced late Tuesday that it was extending voting in the presidential election to a third day amid widespread reports of low turnout. The move could call into
question the legitimacy of front-runner Abdel Fatah al-Sissi.

Many polling stations in normally crowded neighborhoods of the capital were empty Tuesday, the second day of a two-way election seen as a referendum on
Sissi’s rule. A former defense minister and army chief, Sissi led a coup against President Mohamed Morsi — an Islamist who was Egypt’s first democratically elected leader — last July in the wake of protests that demanded his ouster, gaining broad popularity.

A spokesman for Egypt’s election commission told the state-run al-Ahram newspaper Tuesday that turnout had reached 37 percent. But local election monitors and the campaign of Sissi’s challenger, leftist Hamdeen Sabahi, reported turnout as low as 10 percent Monday. The government then declared Tuesday a holiday for public workers to encourage voter participation, suggesting that participation indeed had been low.

The election commission told the official Middle East News Agency that the decision to keep polls open into Wednesday was made to enable voters living outside their home districts to travel there to cast ballots. Egypt’s 54 million voters are required to cast ballots in the districts in which they are registered.

Both campaigns announced Tuesday night that they had submitted complaints to the election commission to halt the third day of voting. Sabahi said the extension was an attempt to manipulate the results. The Sissi campaign did not give a reason for its objection.

Pro-government media criticized Egyptians for staying away from the polls Monday and Tuesday.

“Where are the people? Where is the nation?” television talk-show host Hayat al-Dardiri lamented Monday on the pro-
military channel Faraeen.

Since Morsi’s ouster, the media have helped construct the narrative of Sissi as a widely admired general who is the people’s choice to be Egypt’s president. The Muslim Brotherhood, which backed Morsi’s presidency and remains the country’s largest opposition movement despite an official ban, boycotted the vote. Thousands of its members are in prison.

“I’ll tell them to cut off the electricity tomorrow in all the homes so that the air conditioners don’t work” and Egyptians will go out and vote, said Tawfik Okasha, a firebrand TV personality and owner of Faraeen, in a broadcast Monday night. He is a fierce opponent of the Brotherhood.

Some officials attributed the low turnout to a stifling heat wave, with temperatures topping 100 degrees Tuesday. “It’s too sunny,” a low-ranking soldier said as he sat in the shade at an empty polling station in the greater Cairo district of Dokki on Tuesday afternoon.

In the central Cairo district of Manial, officials and security forces overseeing the vote drank cups of sweet black tea while they waited for voters.

Analysts here say such meager turnout will hurt Sissi politically and cripple his image as an invincible leader.

“It has been clearly revealed that the Sissi campaign has no electoral machine,” journalist Ibrahim Eissa said Monday on the private Tahrir TV network.