Misreading Egypt’s Referendum

As soon as polls closed on January 15 2014, after two days of voting on amendments to the 2012 Egyptian constitution, it was clear that approval was guaranteed by an overwhelming margin well above 90 percent. The final margin was in fact close to 98 percent. This was the occasion for many commentators and scholars, especially in the West, to imply that the margin represents a return to the old regime’s habit of rigging elections. Some seemed to substitute wit and condescension for scholarship by jumping to broad conclusions unsupported by careful examination of the tally.  This is symptomatic of a change in the Egypt narrative three years after the 2011 revolution, from uncritical optimism to unwarranted cynicism. The “Tunisia good, Egypt bad” chorus often echoes basic ignorance of Egypt’s complicated history and unique search for identity. Egyptians, to be sure, are not following the arc of history that many had hoped for and are opting instead for their own script, which is both authentic and authentically convoluted. But this is the moment for careful and realistic examination of today’s Egypt without the distorting lens of passionate advocacy.

First, let us start with the facts. The amended constitution is far from perfect, but it is a more secular and liberal document than the sorry version of 2012. For decades Egypt has amended its constitutions for the worse and this may be the first instance of reversing the downward ratchet.  Paradoxically, some in the West have chosen to condemn this improvement. The referendum is conducted in a nation unsettled by violent protests and hyper-nationalism. Egypt has two modes of political mobilization: nationalist and religious. Egyptians tired quickly of the short rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, and now nationalism is pitted against the Brotherhood’s religious discourse in an increasingly brutal manner. Even some of the ultra-conservative Salafis have joined in. Yasser Borhami, a leader of the Nour party, donned a herringbone blazer to visit the polling station and indicate his approval of the amendments.

As always, the regime exerted a certain amount of heavy-handed “persuasion,” yet the atmosphere of coercion is nothing like the 2005 or the 2010 elections under Mubarak. The preliminary results do not point to massive fraud or ballot stuffing. From its international offices, the Brotherhood urged boycott while local chapters adopted a discourse of menacing sectarianism, so it was essential for the regime to ramp up the turnout to solidify its authority, even if the result was sure to be an overwhelming ‘Yes.’ At the time of publishing, the turnout of 19 million is higher than the 2012 figure of 16 million, but not by a large enough margin to indicate widespread rigging. Some of the strongholds of the Muslim Brotherhood in middle Egypt had, in fact, a lower turnout. These were regions that experienced widespread suppression of Christian votes in 2012 and, in August 2013, a spasm of anti-Christian violence of historic proportion. If the regime was aiming to rig the polls then it did a lousy job of it. One can only assume that the high approval rating is a reflection of both the public will and a determined public relations campaign linking nationalism, stability and intense dislike for the Brotherhood to the ‘Yes’ box.  This poll may look ramshackle, but it is a reflection of where Egypt is today. Any poll is a snapshot in time; only the accumulation of polls delineates a historical trend. The average Egyptian voter may have cast a wary eye on the chaos of state collapse in the Sudan, Levant and Libya and concluded that a strong, even if somewhat oppressive, state is the lesser of all evils. We ought to be careful about second guessing those who will live with the consequences of their decision. The regime seems to have gotten a grudging, and perhaps time-limited, mandate from a public tired of upheavals.

Ignoring the pundit’s concerns for the moment, there is still much to worry about as Egypt squeaks out of the voting process with minimal violence. It is almost certain that the next regime will be at least mildly authoritarian. But will it be capable of fixing the economy or choose to continue on a path of placating the public with subsidies and surviving on handouts? Will it be able to calm investor nerves (especially those in the Gulf) and restart the robust growth of 2007-2010 or lose its way fighting a tit-for-tat violent battle with the Brotherhood? Will the Brotherhood see the result as a wake-up call to seek a ratcheting down of violence and take a more realistic and accommodating posture, or will it continue in its current rejectionist and sectarian dialog? These are all critical questions, with no easy answers, shaping Egypt’s near future.

The final thought is not a comforting one. The Muslim Brotherhood retains sufficient support to selectively disrupt but not effectively govern. The regime’s mandate is more than offset by this very simple fact. Any hope for a brighter future in Egypt is hostage to the Brotherhood, and to a much lesser extent the regime, taking ‘Yes’ for an answer.

Maged Atiya is an Egyptian-American physicist and businessman.  He blogs at  http://www.salamamoussa.com and at twitter @salamamoussa

Image: Photo: Ahram