The Supreme Election Committee has finally announced the results of Egypt’s constitution referendum that stated a turnout was 38.6% of the 53 million eligible voters, 98.1% of whom approved the draft constitution. This result can seem perplexing to many outsiders, but it should not; it is an accurate reflection of the current trajectory in Egypt, following a painful three years of instability, polarization and the collapse of law and order. The outcome of the referendum should give all parties some food for thought, particularly, the army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. The result of the referendum indicates that his problem is not just the Muslim Brotherhood but also his weak, unsustainable coalition, particularly in the country’s much-neglected south and western regions.
Even the most optimistic of Sisi’s supporters admit that the turnout was less than ideal. Despite aggressive campaigning by state and private media as well as top religious figures and political parties, including Salafi Nour, the overall turnout failed to reach the desired target of 40% or above. The low turnout was particularly obvious in the Southern regions (Qena, Sohag, Assiut 23-24%), Fayoum 23.7%, and even more alarmingly, Marsa Matrouh (near the Libyan border), which had the lowest turnout of 16.2%. The reasons for this lack of numbers in those regions are twofold; first, they are regions that have many Brotherhood strongholds and a record of strong backing for Morsi in the second round of presidential elections. There is no doubt that the call for boycotting was welcomed by many in those peripheral, deprived regions. Secondly, there is turbulent record of violence and sectarian tension in the south of Egypt, as well as arms smuggling and tribal links with Libya in Matrouh. Many voters may have simply avoided the polls for fear of revenge attacks from Islamists, or the ongoing violence between the Islamists and the police.
The Anti-coup Coalition
The Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters have continued with their dualism; on one hand, they claim that the higher than 98% yes vote indicates that the referendum results are rigged, while on the other hand they are gloating about the less-than-expected turnout. This is simply ridiculous; they can’t pick and choose the results that suit their views, and reject the rest.
It is true that the referendum was conducted in a very oppressive environment, with an aggressive campaign for the “yes” vote being conducted by the state and private media, top religious figures, and political parties. It also true that many campaigners for a “no” vote were arrested by security forces. Nonetheless, there is no reason to assume that the actual vote was rigged – the 19 million Egyptians who voted for the new charter have done it while fully aware of the implications of their vote, and that should be more alarming to the Brotherhood. Out of three referendums that Egypt has witnessed since January 2011, their own constitution referendum has scored the least popular with a 32.9% “yes” vote.
There are many studies that indicate how boycott is a bad idea. It is worth remembering that their political arm the FJP party is still not banned. Participation would have made them viable in the political arena and paved the way for their open participation in the next parliamentary election. Furthermore, violent intimidation of “no” voters on the days of the referendum would have had a detrimental effect on the military-led government’s image more than suppressing violent clashes with protestors elsewhere. The Brotherhood made the army‘s claims of securing a landside “Yes” vote easier.
The Brotherhood opted to label their opponents as corrupt fools or Copts. Such patronizing views provoked hostility against them from a wide cross-section of Egyptian society. The social rejection of the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly in urban areas and in the various syndicates, is far more dangerous for the future of the group than regime oppression. Now, the group’s core supporters are on the periphery and not in the heart of Egypt.
The Youth Conundrum
The other remarkable result of the referendum was the low turnout among youth. The unofficial reports indicate that only 19% of Egyptian youth between the ages of 19 and 30 participated in the referendum. This dismal rate should give general Sisi more sleepless nights than the overall turnout rate. There is a big generation gap in Egypt. Many seniors and middle-aged Egyptians are promoting stability and realpolitik, and are willing to accept the repressive measures of the authority in return for having a functional state, in comparison to a substantial portion of the younger generation who are still in the mood for revolution.
There are two reasons behind the current disenchantment among some Egyptian youth:
First is the ongoing violence and bloodshed in several Egyptian universities. There is a very emotionally charged environment, and even a sense of isolation, among many university students; many are not Brotherhood supporters and watch their colleagues lose their lives on a daily basis. The anger of the youth is being exploited by the anti-coup coalition to stir up more instability in Egypt’s universities.
Second is the re-emergence of the political and economic class aligned with the regime of former strongman Hosni Mubarak. It is worth remembering that the new constitution scrapped Article 37 for the “political isolation” of former members of the Mubarak regime. Many members of the old guard have openly expressed their disdain towards youth protests; some have even engaged in a smear campaign against revolutionary youths. Regardless of the truth behind the activities of some of these activists, these attacks are enough to make many Egyptian youths feel disenchanted with the entire political sphere.
Moreover, the referendum results reflect the weak nature of the coalition that rallied behind general Sisi after June 30. About 33 million eligible voters stayed at home during the referendum; some were boycotters, but others were passively unhappy with the political dynamics in general. Now, General Sisi has to solve a very complex conundrum – how to win back the alienated youth without losing the support of the hawks in the security apparatus? How can he build a new order without losing the financial backing from various members of Mubarak’s old guard? How can he regain popularity and reestablish law and order in various regions on Egypt’s periphery?
There are no easy answers to these questions, although it seems that General Sisi is aware of the challenge. According to a report in Al-Masry al-Youm newspaper, he asserted that there will be no return to pre-revolution state, but how serious can this assertion be?
Egypt needs a leader that can successfully implement Bismarck’s vision that: “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.” Thus, the real question is, how creative is Egypt’s army chief?