The Call

Non-Islamists get a boost from referendum

By Hani Sabra and John Watling Egypt’s first round of the referendum on the new constitution delivered a blow to the Muslim Brotherhood and boosted the hopes of the non-Islamist opposition. The draft constitution received a strong yes vote with 56 percent support, but it fell far short of the two-thirds majority that the Brotherhood ...

GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

By Hani Sabra and John Watling

Egypt’s first round of the referendum on the new constitution delivered a blow to the Muslim Brotherhood and boosted the hopes of the non-Islamist opposition. The draft constitution received a strong yes vote with 56 percent support, but it fell far short of the two-thirds majority that the Brotherhood had likely calculated would be the minimum vote it would win. In addition, voter turnout was low at just 31 percent and Cairenes reportedly rejected the draft 58 percent to 42 percent. The most significant point of comparison is the result of the March 2011 vote that set in motion efforts to draft the new constitution. The Brotherhood and other Islamist groups also backed that poll and it was approved by a massive 77 percent of voters while turnout was also stronger at 41 percent.

The implications for the upcoming parliamentary elections are potentially dramatic, with the non-Islamist opposition emboldened, united for the moment, and possibly on track to win a significant proportion of the seats, though it will still probably fall short of a majority. Egypt’s electorate is fluid and a plurality of Egyptians are probably unaffiliated. The non-Islamists probably have a core support of around 20 percent, while the Muslim Brotherhood’s core support is probably at around 25 percent. The Muslim Brotherhood also retains its robust electoral machine, and likely support from Salafists, who have their own parties but generally support Brotherhood initiatives. However, the Brotherhood’s peripheral support among the remaining plurality of the population — the unaffiliated voters — appears to have taken a hit and is waning.

The results are likely to push the Brotherhood to take a less conciliatory approach to governing in the short term, as it scrambles to maintain its advantage. Despite rhetoric about so-called talks, Brotherhood leaders, such as Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie, are becoming increasingly nervous about opposition challenges, and do not want to appear as though they are negotiating from a position of weakness with groups they believed were irrelevant. In addition, as protest activity against the Muslim Brotherhood has increased, the movement has looked inward rather than reaching out to the broader Egyptian society.

The referendum results will fuel the tensions between the Brotherhood and the non-Islamist opposition. The confrontation, played out through protests, strikes, and clashes between opposition supporters and police, will make governing even more difficult. This will be compounded by the ongoing battle between the bureaucracy and the presidency.

Hani Sabra is an analyst with Eurasia Group’s Middle East practice. John Watling is a senior editor with Eurasia Group.

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