The Egyptian Opposition Puts Referendum in Perspective

The Egyptian opposition appeared to be exhausted at the start of the new year. The energy its members had exhibited a year ago, despite disappointing parliamentary election results, seems to have dissipated.

The problem is not so much that they have been beaten. Indeed, in some areas, they have done well for a relatively nascent political force. Rather, it is that they have failed to learn from the last two years and build upon what has been accomplished so far. In the coming months, opposition forces need to examine the numbers from their past electoral performances and from there expand their geographic base of support by delivering their message in the context of Egyptian voters’ key priorities.

The results of the post-Mubarak elections held thus far — the constitutional referendum (early 2011), parliamentary elections (2011/2012) and presidential elections (2012) — testify to the opposition’s core supporters. In the constitutional referendum, the Muslim Brotherhood backed the ruling military council’s “transitional road map,” while most of those who comprise the opposition today rallied against it.

The results of that vote indicate two things. First, the opposition’s primary bases of support are in Alexandria, Cairo and Giza as well as Asyut, Gharbia, Daqahliyya and Minya. In these governorates, Egyptians cast 20–40% of their votes “no.” Second, the average Egyptian voter, as early as March 2011, was looking primarily for stability, which explains how the “yes” camp managed to mobilize 78% of the electorate to vote for the road map.

Polling from that period indicated that the overwhelming majority of Egyptians were opposed to continuing protests after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, indicating that they had hoped for a quick return to normalcy. Stability to build and progress toward a better future is what the Egyptian voter wanted, not more instability and uncertainty.

In the parliamentary elections, which generated an even larger turnout than the referendum, the geographic distribution of opposition support was the same, more or less, as in the referendum. The Wafd and the Egyptian Bloc, the two main players in the non-Islamist opposition, managed to garner 13% of the vote in Daqahliyya, 16% in Giza, 17% in Alexandria, 17% in Minya, 22% in Gharbia, 22% in Minufiya, 24% in Asyut and 28% in Cairo. These numbers, from the most critical governorates, stand as the opposition’s strongest showings. These areas are represented by anywhere from 24 to 54 seats in parliament.

When analysts looked at the polls from this period, it became clear that Egyptian voters had three main priorities: inflation and the lack or shortage of money; lack of jobs and unemployment; and public safety. These were the issues on the minds of Egyptians during the parliamentary elections, meaning that those most inclined to vote, would likely have cast ballots for the parties or party — whether it be the main Salafist organization or the most anti-Muslim Brotherhood party — that they thought could best address these problems. It is unlikely that Egyptians’ priorities have changed since these problems have only intensified.

The presidential elections confirmed the core bases of support for the opposition. Minya is clearly a difficult place for them, with 42% of voters there favoring Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi in the first round and the remaining majority of votes going to Ahmed Shafiq, Hamdeen Sabahi, Abu-l-Futuh and Amr Moussa. Apart from that, however, the results from Asyut, Alexandria, Cairo, Gharbia, Giza, and Minufiya showed wide margins of support for the non-Muslim Brotherhood candidates in the two rounds of voting. The opposition should also make note of the differences between the north and south, as well as between the urban and rural, and tailor their strategy accordingly. 

The challenge for the opposition today is to show that it is a reasonable alternative that can deliver stability in order to make progress on the economy, jobs and safety. Regardless of the opposition’s political priorities, its leaders need to discuss and present them within the context of those issues of concern to Egyptian voters. If they can accomplish this, support for them could grow substantially beyond their current strongholds.

Given that the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood has declined significantly, there is no need for the opposition to make a priority of illustrating that the Brotherhood has done poorly in power. Egyptian voters have already shown that they are generally uninterested in the Islamist forces rallying around the president. Less than one-third of Egyptians cast ballots in the constitutional referendum in late 2012 despite the best efforts of the Islamists to make the vote count. That said, however, the low turnout is also an indication of general apathy toward the opposition as well. 

Going forward, if the average Egyptian voter remains unimpressed with the opposition, then election turnout will be low, and the Brotherhood and its allies are likely to do well because they can rely on their base to vote. Such a scenario would result in a parliament unlikely to hold the current government accountable. That does not bode well for Egypt’s transition to a pluralistic political system. Indeed, it renders such a transition even more unlikely.