CAIRO (AFP) - Egypt's ex-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was headed on Thursday for an overwhelming victory in a presidential election touted as a plebiscite on his ouster of the elected Islamist leader last year.
With almost 15 percent of polling stations accounted for, the retired field marshal led with about 93 percent of votes cast over the three-day election, trouncing his sole rival Hamdeen Sabbahi.
The outcome had never been in doubt, with Sisi riding on a wave of support for a potential strongman who can restore stability after several years of tumult.
Hundreds of Sisi's supporters took to the streets waving Egyptian flags, setting off fire works and honking their car horns.
"It's a victory for stability," said Tahra Khaled, who joined the crowd celebrating in the iconic Tahrir Square, the nerve centre of mass protests that toppled strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
The army-installed government and Sisi were eyeing a large turn out as an endorsement of the overthrow of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last July, and the subsequent crackdown on his supporters.
Voting had been scheduled to end on Tuesday, but was extended for an extra day in a last minute decision that sparked protests from Sabbahi, a leftist politician who came in third in the 2012 election Morsi won.
Sabbahi received 133,548 votes (2.95 percent) to Sisi's 4,215,699 (93.3 percent) in the latest polls, according to the official Nile Television.
The station reported that 166,738 voters (3.7 percent) spoiled their ballots in the 2,000 out of 13,899 polling stations that have already released their tallies.
An election committee official said turnout has "surpassed 25 million (46 percent)" out of almost 54 million registered voters, the official Al-Ahram newspaper reported on its website.
The move to extend polling for a day fuelled criticism of an election already marred by a deadly crackdown on Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood movement.
An electoral official had said after Tuesday's voting, when the election had originally been scheduled to end, turnout was around 37 percent, well below the 52 percent of voters who cast their ballots in the 2012 election which Morsi won.
Sisi had appealed for a large turnout, seeking vindication for his overthrow of Morsi, Egypt's only freely elected president, after a single turbulent year in power.
Sisi had urged "40, 45 (million) or even more" to give credibility to an election boycotted by Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and secular opposition groups.
After reports of meagre numbers at polling stations on the first day of voting Monday, Sisi's backers in the state-run media appealed to people to get out and vote.
On Wednesday, several Cairo polling stations visited by AFP were practically deserted.
"They didn't get enough votes, so they extended polling into a third day," complained filmmaker Mohamed Ali Hagar, who said he would stay away regardless.
The extension of polling casts doubt on the vote's credibility, experts said.
It "raises more questions about the independence of the electoral commission, the impartiality of the government, and the integrity of Egypt's electoral process," said Democracy International, a US-based observer mission.
- 'Death certificate for coup' -
That echoed criticism from Sabbahi, who said on Tuesday that the extension raises "questions... about the integrity of the process".
"On a national level, the state has argued that the roadmap is backed by a majority of Egyptian people," said Hisham Hellyar, associate fellow at The Royal United Services Institute, referring to the military-installed authorities' plan to return Egypt to elected rule.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which had championed a boycott of the election, hailed the lower turnout.
"The great Egyptian people have given a new slap to the military coup's roadmap and... written the death certificate of the military coup," said its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party.
The Brotherhood has been subjected to a massive crackdown that has killed hundreds of its supporters and seen it designated a "terrorist" organisation.
All of the movement's main leaders are now in jail or exile, and Morsi himself is being tried on charges that could carry the death penalty.
Prominent activists behind the uprising that ousted long-time strongman Mubarak in 2011 had also called for a boycott, charging Sisi was a new autocrat in the making.
Sisi's ouster of Morsi on July 3 last year triggered the worst peacetime bloodshed in Egypt's recent history, but the former army chief has vowed to stamp out the violence.
He has said "true democracy" in the Arab world's most populous nation will take a couple of decades.