FAYOUM Egypt (Reuters) - Even though the former army chief who removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power is expected to become Egypt's next president, a vote with low turnout has raised hopes in a desert oasis that the Islamist movement can make a comeback one day.
Many residents of Fayoum, an Islamist stronghold south of Cairo, support the Brotherhood, which has won nearly every election since a popular uprising toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
But Islamists here and in other parts of the country have grown increasingly demoralized since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi toppled President Mohamed Mursi of the Brotherhood last July.
Sisi is expected to win Egypt's presidential election, which was extended to a third day on Wednesday to boost turnout.
But nearly empty polling stations have raised doubts over the level of support for the man who the Brotherhood says staged a coup and destroyed Egypt's experiment with democracy.
Brotherhood members here like Mohamed Abdel Hafeez interpret the low turnout as a sign that Egyptians no longer believe the official narrative that hails Sisi as a hero and demonizes Islamists as terrorists.
"We're betting on the steadfastness of the people in the streets and we're betting on the people's awareness which is starting to spread," said the clean-shaven Abdel Hafeez, sipping tea at an open-air cafe in the early evening heat.
"Our battle is one of awareness."
The organized and disciplined Brotherhood has gained many followers in Egypt through preaching, charities and social networks since it was founded in 1928. Its steady work eventually earned enough respect to propel Mursi to power.
But his year in office was a disaster for the Brotherhood.
Many Egyptians felt he was usurping power, imposing the Brotherhood's rigid ideology and mismanaging the economy. They staged mass protests, prompting Sisi to step in.
"Now that we are out of power, we have the opportunity to return to the masses," said Abdel Hafeez, 27, a veterinarian.
"The Brotherhood wasn't doing awareness during the last year (Mursi's year). It was too busy with affairs of state and problems. It neglected communicating with the people."
From the window of a nearby building, young girls repeated a chant used at protests in Fayoum and nearby farming villages: "Sisi is a killer!"
Graffiti in Fayoum's central district calls Sisi a "traitor" and a "killer" and insists that "Mursi is returning".
One crude drawing depicts the four-finger sign representing the square where hundreds of Brotherhood supporters were killed last August when security forces cleared a protest camp.
Residents have staged demonstrations and clashed with police every week since Mursi's fall but opposition to the army-backed government has failed to change Egypt's political landscape. Sisi became more popular even as repression spread.
Low voter turnout marked the first signal that public opinion may be changing.
Abdel Hafeez said more than 600 people had been arrested in Fayoum in the last nine months. He said he had been forced into hiding by a security crackdown which had reached the lower levels of the Brotherhood's leadership structure.
He said 114 people were killed by security forces in Fayoum, a city of about three million.
"That's 114 families. Each member of those families now has a vendetta against the regime and won't back down," he said.
The low election turnout has emboldened Abdel Hafeez, who feels that perhaps the Brotherhood may once again have a chance in the battle for hearts and minds of Egyptians, even though Mursi and other leaders are on trial.
He speaks of a three-year plan to create the environment for a revolution. "There are many means," he said.
"The movement which was sidelined by force is still popular and can still mobilize the masses despite oppression."
(Editing by Michael Georgy and Giles Elgood)