The Middle East Channel

The Egyptian liberals’ soft defeat

The Egyptian liberals’ soft defeat

On Saturday, Egyptians voted in a national referendum on the country’s new constitution, drafted over the course of six months by a largely Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly. Opponents of the new document say it restricts freedoms, inflates the powers of the presidency, and makes second-class citizens out of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority. Mohamed ElBaradei, leader of the National Salvation Front (NSF), a loose coalition of opposition figures, including former presidential candidates Hamdeen Sabahi and Amr Moussa, declared that the constitution did not represent a majority of Egyptians, and urged his followers (after some dithering about a boycott) to vote no.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the results of the first phase of the referendum (conducted in 10 of Egypt’s most populous governorates, with the remaining 17 to vote on December 22) were a blow to ElBaradei’s narrative. The new constitution passed comfortably, with an estimated 57 percent voting yes. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) has “hailed” the poll, describing the result as a rebuke to “politicians and collaborators who ignored the will of the people.”

On the face of it, the Brotherhood’s narrative seems sound. In fact, a greater share of voters in each governorate voted for President Mohamed Morsi’s constitution than had voted for the man himself last June (see figure). In fact, only in Cairo and Alexandria did Morsi’s constitution do more poorly than Morsi had, and even then only barely. This result has been interpreted by some as a strengthening of Morsi’s mandate, and a repudiation of the notion that the president’s controversial actions over the past few weeks have lost him the goodwill of many of the Egyptians who supported him.

But this is misleading. Though Gamal Heshmat (the former parliamentarian from Damanhour and a senior FJP figure) declared that the “long queues” at polling stations indicated “heavy turnout,” the reality was precisely the opposite. Turnout was slightly over 30 percent, much lower than the 52 percent turnout in the June presidential runoff, or the 43 percent turnout in the presidential election’s first round, or even the 40 percent turnout in the March 2011 constitutional referendum (a waste of time in which Egyptians voted to amend a constitution that the military then went ahead and abolished). The chart below compares turnout by governorate in the referendum to the presidential election. If turnout were the same, the dots would all appear on the dashed line. If referendum turnout were higher than presidential election turnout, the dots would all appear above the dashed line. As you can see, they’re all comfortably below it — an arresting visual representation of how many Egyptians seem to have checked out of the political process in the last six months.

In fact, a better way of gauging whether the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi picked up steam or lost it during this referendum would be to compare how many raw votes Morsi got in June versus how many raw votes his constitution got on Saturday. The chart below shows that, in every governorate except South Sinai, North Sinai, and Aswan (where roughly the same number of people came out for both Morsi and his charter), fewer people cast ballots for Morsi’s constitution than they had for him. In other words, some who voted for the president six months ago decided not to do so on Saturday. Whether those former supporters stayed home or defected to the other side is hard to know, but this result cannot be spun as a victory for the president.  

But what does this mean for the opposition? How can it capitalize on the president’s newly-demonstrated vulnerability?

One suggestion that emerges from the data is that the opposition should reach out to supporters of former presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq. If we assume that all of the “yes” votes were cast by people who had voted for the president in June, and all of the “no” votes cast by people who had voted against him, the results of the referendum suggest that more Shafiq voters than Morsi voters stayed home this time. Of course, this assumption is likely not 100 percent true in the real world –some Shafiq voters certainly voted “yes,” while some Morsi voters said “no,” but if you believe it’s a fair assumption in general, the results are striking. The chart below plots the estimated number of Shafiq voters in each governorate who failed to vote “no” against the estimated number of Morsi voters who failed to vote “yes.” In every governorate save Alexandria, the anti-Morsi side lost more votes between June and today than the pro-Morsi side did. What this suggests is that there is a large bank of voters, alienated from the political process, and proven in its opposition to the president, just waiting to be tapped.

The referendum isn’t over, and a surprise in the second round is possible (but not likely). If current patterns persist, Morsi’s constitution is going to pass, and Egypt’s liberals are going to need to begin preparing for the inevitable parliamentary elections. And to win in those contests, they are going to have to figure out a way to overcome their distaste at canvassing for the votes of erstwhile supporters of Shafiq (and, by extension, Mubarak).

This will be a bitter pill to swallow. After all, Egypt’s liberals did not overthrow Mubarak merely to have to scramble after the votes of his orphans. But as the results of this referendum suggest, the greatest beneficiary of the political marginalization of the fulul is Mohamed Morsi.

Tarek Masoud is an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.