98.1pc 'yes' in Egyptian charter vote doesn't reflect popular will

Low turnout, especially among young, devalues charter referendum and exposes wide divisions

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 January, 2014, 11:28pm
UPDATED : Monday, 20 January, 2014, 11:28pm


For all the self-congratulatory headlines in Egypt's pro-military media, the results of last week's constitutional referendum fell short of the emphatic popular mandate the nation's military chief was looking for before announcing his presidential run.

The outcome - nearly everyone who cast a ballot approved the draft constitution, but turnout was low, at less than 39 per cent - has exposed the enduring divisions six months after the ousting of Islamist president Mohammed Mursi and nearly three years after Hosni Mubarak was overthrown.

Another worrying aspect is that young Egyptians appear to have stayed away from the polls, probably because of frustration over the lack of real change and anger over the perceived return of Mubarak-era figures. They are also disillusioned by police brutality and other heavy-handed tactics by security agencies.

Only 16 per cent of those aged 18 to 30 voted. That is the segment of the population that served as the engine of the 2011 revolution and the big anti-Mursi demonstrations in June and July last year.

The 98.1 per cent "yes" vote could not be seen as an accurate reflection of public opinion in "a country as big and as complex and divided as Egypt", said Khaled Fahmy, a political analyst at the American University in Cairo. "This is a very alarming figure. Something has gone very wrong."

General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, the military chief who led the July 3 coup that removed Mursi, has yet to say outright whether he will seek the presidency. His supporters had viewed the referendum on the new constitution as a vote on his possible bid.

But the relatively low turnout should be reason for concern for the general and his supporters.

While no one is claiming the vote was rigged or fraudulent, it took place amid a climate of intimidation. There was a de facto ban on campaigning for a "no" vote and a media frenzy that projected a "yes" vote as the only way out of the country's deadly turmoil and economic and social ills.

Islamists effectively boycotted the two-day vote, honouring a call by Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood to shun it as a sham.

The ultraconservative Salafi party Al-Nour, which sided with Sisi against Mursi, also appeared to have failed to rally its supporters for a "yes" vote, reducing the turnout.

The party won 25 per cent of the vote in parliamentary elections two years ago.

"Even the most optimistic of el-Sisi's supporters admit that the turnout was less than ideal," prominent analyst Nervana Mahmoud wrote in her blog. "Despite aggressive campaigning by state and private media as well as top religious figures and political parties, including the Salafi Al-Nour, the overall turnout failed to reach the desired target of 40 per cent or above."

But Mahmoud contends that the Brotherhood's call for a boycott was effective mostly in peripheral regions to the south and west of Cairo, a trend she said confirmed the group's isolation and loss of support in the densely populated urban areas.

The relatively low turnout, according to three senior officials close to the military's leadership, suggests the emergence of serious cracks in the Sisi-led coalition that led the opposition and eventual removal of Mursi last year. They said the military was investigating whether its liberal and secular allies, as well as the Salafis, did enough to get out the vote.

The officials said the military in the meantime was convinced that Sisi could not let down the nearly 20 million Egyptians who voted "yes".

"The military will not stand on the sidelines while the country is divided and facing challenges at home and abroad," one of the officials said. "Egypt needs a military leader and people want el-Sisi to run."