Editor’s note: This article was first published in The National.
It is now clear that the Egyptian opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood lost the vote on the new constitution. But it is clearer that the Brotherhood has lost more than the opposition did – and that Egyptian political life has lost most of all. The good news: all of them can still win.
The “yes” camp positioned this referendum, which concluded Saturday, as not a vote on a truly flawed constitutional draft in the midst of some of the highest levels of violence, strife and political polarisation that Egypt has ever seen. Rather, it made this a vote on Islam, the presidency itself, and the constitution – probably in that order.
In contrast, the “No” campaign made it a vote on the constitution, the process in which it was delivered and Brotherhood hegemony in the Egyptian political arena.
Taken together, the results should be painful reading for the Brotherhood, and a good lesson to the opposition.
In a country where the importance of religion is paramount and the overwhelming majority of people are Muslim, and during a vote where Islam itself was made to be a focal point, one would have expected high voter turnout. But turnout was low. Out of an estimated 51 million registered voters, about 16 million came out to vote. That’s the lowest turnout rate in Egypt since the beginning of the revolution.
Moreover, it means that 80 per cent of voters did not vote, or voted against this constitution. That is hardly a strong mandate for the constitution. While reasons for not voting will vary, none of them will be good for the Brotherhood’s reputation and credibility. There are reports that in some areas, Christians did not go to vote out of fear. Many voters felt that the vote would be rigged (especially in the second round, where the voter turnout was even lower) which led them to consider a vote cast to be a vote of little use.
It is doubtful that the Brotherhood will look at it that way, and will instead portray the referendum as one where they won the majority of the ballots. But this was not a commanding victory.
Yet it would be a mistake to read too much into the “no” vote tally. The opposition did not earn 36 per cent of votes casts because of being organised. Rather, support for the “no” bloc was an organic expression of opposition to the Brotherhood, perhaps spurred on by the sectarian and extreme discourse that was used by the “yes” camp supporters.
If anything, the opposition leadership, particularly those contained within the National Salvation Front, also bears responsibility for the lacklustre turnout. In the days before the vote, that leadership wavered tremendously between a boycott and a “no” vote, confusing what supporters they had, and ensuring that few additional potential supporters would join their camp. In truth, it is incredible that the “no” vote did as well as it did.
Indeed, there are lessons here for both sides.
Since very early on in the Egyptian revolution, the Brotherhood has felt that as the most organised political force in Egypt, with the single largest group of supporters, it can proceed without the need to build consensus. Two years later, that same impulse led to an incredibly potent polarisation in the country’s politics.
Overseas, foreign governments are becoming bolder in talking about linking aid to governance issues – and for the sake of Egypt’s economy, if not on principle alone, the Brotherhood will need to become more sensitive to that.
But it is the opposition that has the most to learn. And for two years, the opposition has failed to internalise two basic lessons of politics in Egypt.
The first is that, generally, the opposition’s leadership is drawn from the elite of Egyptian society, and is detached from Egypt’s wider fabric. Last year, when non-Brotherhood forces failed to challenge a constitutional referendum on grounds the changes didn’t go far enough, they should have looked closer at the results and saw where their base was, and where it wasn’t. They didn’t – and they must start to seriously analyse such data now.
The second is that the opposition’s leadership is divided, and disunited, making it far less effective. The key figures domestically are the three former presidential candidates: Hamdeen Sabahi, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Amr Moussa. Yet, Mr Sabahi has not been very prominent in the National Salvation Front, and Mr Aboul Fotouh is not even in that umbrella group. It cannot be lost on the opposition that a team that included both a progressive Islamist figure and a left-wing politician would have great effect on Egypt at large, and help to diffuse the polarisation that exists.
Parliamentary elections will be upon the opposition in a few months. To be more successful, it must organise strategically and effectively for them now, building on what momentum it has. And opposition politicians must remember that many voters either didn’t vote the way the Brotherhood wanted them to, or didn’t vote at all. They might vote for the opposition, if the opposition can speak to their concerns more effectively.
These aren’t two mutually exclusive goals: a more consensus-building Brotherhood, and a better organised opposition, is good for both camps, and for Egypt. A healthy, pluralistic political arena is one where the dominant political force tries to act in the interests of the country at large, where a strong opposition to call that force to account for the good of the nation. If one, or both, of these things now come to pass, then no one loses: and only Egypt wins.