Egypt's 97.7 Per Cent: If Everyone Votes Yes, Is It Democracy?

Peter Hessler in The New Yorker hits on an important truth about Egyptian politics - its fickleness: 

Hassan was smoking a shisha pipe at a coffee shop near the polling station, and he told me that he planned to vote yes. He had voted for Morsi in 2012. “He was a good man, but there was so much corruption around him,” Hassan said. I asked him if the Brothers are really terrorists.


“Yes,” he said, without hesitating. “I see what is happening on television, the things in Sinai, and I can see that they are terrorists.”

I had heard similar comments from many others. But Hassan surprised me when I asked about Sisi. “I’m telling you, if Sisi runs and wins, then the people will hate him,” he said. “Right now everybody loves him. But, once he gets the chair, then it will all change.”

This is hard to recognize in the 97.7 per cent: beneath the surface, there’s an incredible volatility to the Egyptian majority. Outsiders tend to see two entrenched sides, the security forces and the Islamists, but in fact most Egyptians occupy a much less partisan and less predictable political space. And they still have power, whether it comes through the vote or through public protests.

Thus far, everybody who has tried to run the country in the post-Tahrir era has failed to understand how quickly things can change. Until the bitter end, Morsi and the other Brotherhood leaders truly believed that they remained popular, simply because they had won elections in the past. But, at the polls this week, I met many people who had voted yes on both constitutions, and it was common to talk to a former Morsi supporter who was now an enthusiastic fan of Sisi. Nagat Abdel Latif, a middle-aged woman who worked at the Ministry of Aviation, told me that she came to the polls not because of the constitution but because she wanted to show her support for Sisi. A year and a half earlier, she had voted for Morsi, even though her ministry had been led by Ahmed Shafik, Morsi’s opponent in the Presidential election. “I worked there, so I knew about Shafik,” she told me. “I liked him, too. Still, many of us there voted for Morsi. We just thought it was time for a change. But we were wrong; Morsi was terrible.” She told me that she was certain Sisi would be better.

I suspect that we were to draw a Venn diagram of Egyptians who voted for Morsi in 2012, voted for the 2012 constitution, voted for the 2013 constitution and intend to vote for Sisi in 2014, the overlap would be significant. 

Known Unknown: Why the Egyptian Referendum is a Black Box

Interesting observations by Matt Hall for the Atlantic Council on a question nagging many – the quality of observer missions in the Egyptian referendum. Worth reading the whole thing, but here's the bit that clarifies the question of whether or not this referendum process has been less or more transparent than previous electoral events:

Al Ahram reports that approximately 5,000 Egyptians were slated to observe the referendum—a very small number considering there are upwards of 30,000 polling stations. Not enough, for example, to observe if the overnight seals on ballot boxes were unbroken while in the custody of the military—or to keep a keen eye on voter registries—as was standard practice in past elections.
Part of the explanation for the reduced ranks of poll watchers is that, unlike in previous elections where the bulk of observation was shouldered by party agents, for this vote the High Electoral Commission barred party agents under the specious rationale that the constitutional referendum was not a political party contest—despite the fact that political parties have been instrumental in campaigning, advertising, and mobilizing for the vote. On top of this, many of the experienced domestic groups with national networks decided to sit out the referendum owing to the overall oppressive environment, or had trouble securing government permissions. For example, the group Shayfeenkum (“we see you”), which has observed Egyptian elections since 2005, reported 60 percent of their applications were refused. And, of course, observation groups affiliated with the FJP have been banned since the government declared the Muslim Brotherhood, from which the party stems, a criminal organization.

Of the domestic groups observing the referendum, most have limited reach, resources, and technical proficiency. The only group that pledged to field a nation-wide observation mission, Tamarod, has no prior experience in the technical aspects of observation. Moreover, as the progenitors of the June 30 revolution that this election is meant to secure, their professional objectivity is suspect. Indeed their campaign spokesperson declared the objective of the group’s electoral observation is to prevent “schemes by the Muslim Brotherhood.”

In addition to gleaning information for a national audience, domestic observers serve as essential antennae for international observer missions, who are always far less knowledgeable about local conditions. For better or worse, the statements of international missions often are taken as the final word on an election in international media and foreign capitals, and the veracity of these statements depends in large part on quality partnerships with local actors.

The referendum has clearly been, to say the least, problematic since both people campaigning for a boycott and those campaigning for a "no" vote have been subjected to arrests, access to state and private media has been extremely imbalanced, and the overall political context is a highly repressive one. As a result, part of the debate over the referendum has been whether it tells us anything of use. You could break down the debate in the following way:

  • Triumphalist: Those like the government, its supporters and most of the Egyptian media who see the results as a triumph for Egypt, a blow to the Brotherhood, an endorsement of Sisi and an affirmation of the roadmap.

  • Pragmatic: Those who see the referendum as revealing genuine popularity of Sisi and public support for military, and that even if undemocratic or populist it is a reality that foreign observers, disappointed revolutionaries and others need to understand. These stress the decent apparent turnout to point out that a large number of Egyptians do support the current regime, like it or not.

  • Skeptical: Those who see the referendum as largely meaningless due to the impossibility of campaigning for a boycott or "no" vote, and the overall repressive environment and hysterical press. In essence, while the referendum is being used for propaganda purposes, it tells us little about Egypt's political realities aside from that the army is powerful. This has been a dominant response among Western analysts, much to the ire of some Egyptians.

  • Rejectionist: Those, mostly from the Anti-Coup Alliance, who see the referendum as illegitimate and its results and turnout figures as rigged. The MB has for instance claimed that the turnout was only around 10%, rather than the 36% or so from official preliminary results.

The first and the last position clearly appear to be out of touch with reality. Caution would lead one to side with the skeptical view, like the above article, but the pragmatic argument is also worth noting. Even if unreliable as a test of where popular opinion stands, it is pretty evident that there are many Egyptians who back the current state of affairs, just as it is pretty evident that there many who are not happy about it. The combination of repression and outright electoral fraud (in the case of not allowing people to campaign as they wish if not in the polling stations and vote counting rooms) should lead us to dismiss this referendum as a reliable indicator of anything but the regime's ability to put mobilize a sizable constituency and put on a show of self-legitimizing pageantry.

Column: It's the process

My latest piece for al-Masri al-Youm is up — I opine on the "constitution first" debate:

The "Constitution First" debate would never have emerged had the referendum and its aftermath not been sloppily handled, most notably with the establishment of a constitutional declaration (rather than an amended constitution) that went way beyond the nine articles the public had approved. To be quite frank, I find it unbelievable that the constitutional committee headed by Tareq al-Bishri and in which many senior judges participated backed such a sloppy process, even in extraordinary times. The initiatives by ElBaradei and Sheikh al-Azhar are in many respects now repairing the damage created by their unnecessary, avoidable mess.

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,

District-level Egypt referendum results



This a map of the results of the 19 March 2011 referendum by district. Some of the most populated governorates and districts of Egypt are the smallest, and these are the ones which tended to vote the most no. I put the file on Prezi so that you can zoom in and see the smaller districts easily. More maps and results will be available soon.

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,

Mapping Egypt's referendum

As I've said before, Egyptians voted yes or no for different reasons (a flaw in the design of the referendum), but even so I thought it'd be interesting to draw up a US-style red vs. blue map showing the trends across Egypt's 29 governorates. The most red governorates are those with the highest percentage of "yes" votes, the more blueish ones (actually purple, since the lowest "yes" vote was around 60% in Cairo governorate) have more "no" votes.

What does this tell us? Basically, that governorates with a large urban population (Cairo, Alexandria, Giza, Assiut) had a higher proportions of "no" votes, as did those sparsely populated governorates that have a large proportion of tourism workers (Red Sea, South Sinai, Luxor). Areas where tribes count more tended to have a high "yes" vote (Wadi Gedid, Marsa Matruh, North Sinai). I've done more number-crunching extrapolating from census figures to guestimate participation by governorate, but I'll put that information up later this week. 

One caveat: the allegations of fraud and Copts being barred from voting in Qena governorate really need to be investigated to know whether the result for that governorate can be taken as representative.

The results are in

18 million voted, 14 million (77%) said "yes" and 4 million said "no."

It's a mandate for the military to some extent, but the minority is substantial enough to make it clear consensus is not overwhelming — even if there were different reasons for voting yes or no.

One nice aspect of this is that the commission overseeing the referendum is taking critical questions from the press, explaining where there was fraud, assuring that perpetrators will be punished (2-5 years in prison). That's pretty unprecedented, previously the government just ignored allegations of fraud.

My analysis what is problematic with the referendum still stands, and we'll have to wait to see if the case for massive fraud can convincingly be made. Overall, though, I suspect that this referendum, is in its conduct, was generally a step forward for Egypt.

Two important question on Egypt's referendum

Update: The results are in, 77% yes — more here.

While we wait for the results to be announced, it's worth taking stock of two aspects of yesterday's referendum — quite aside from the massive participation that is worth celebrating. But I'd like to explore some aspects of the referendum that I perhaps overlooked in my previous long post (I am sick and jet-lagged, so perhaps that omission can be forgiven) after some discussions I had today and looking through the comments on past posts.

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25 million voted in Egypt yesterday

It's been announced that 25 million Egyptians, or over 60% of eligible voters, participated in yesterday's referendum on constitutional amendments. That's an astounding figure — only 6 million were said to have voted in the parliamentary elections last November. It also means the announcement of the final results could take longer than expected, although a press conference is expected any minute now. Whatever the outcome, that figure is a very positive sign of the public's confidence that a better Egypt is being forged.

Follow early results on al-Ahram's liveblog: Early results of Egypt referendum updated as they come in (so far, it looks like a good lead for the yeses)

Also, Moftasa makes an important point here: Data from referendum will draw a new map of Egypt |

Update: It turns out 18 million voted. Still very respectable, with 14 million "yes" and 4 million "no."

Some thoughts on Egypt's referendum

In Maadi, a 6 April youth activists greets the voters with sweets.

I went out for a few hours this morning and toured various areas south of Cairo — Maadi, Helwan and villages beyond it — to see how things were taking place at polling stations. Whether in urban areas or in rural ones, I have to say I've never seen an Egyptian election as cleanly run and where a mood of enthusiastic civism dominated. Whether people voted yes or no, there was a calm dialogue, confidence and pride in being able to vote freely for the first time. This alone is a major achievement considering that only three or four months ago, Egypt held one of the most fraudulent election in its history. Even if there are reports of irregularities elsewhere, Egyptians can take pride in their newfound civism and take the debate over how to vote in the referendum as evidence of a healthy national debate.

Were I Egyptian, I'm not sure how I would vote. Most of my friends are voting no, and there are good reasons to do so. The constitutional committee was appointed hastily and its composition was problematic, some of the revised amendments — notably on nationality requirements — stink of chauvinism, and the army has been clumsy in advocating for a yes vote and intimidating the no campaign. Yet, at the same time, I can understand the yes vote: a desire to move quickly so that the army returns to the barracks, political stability is more quickly restored and that the mandate for transition is clear (this is basically what the referendum is really about — granting a mandate to the army's transition blueprint).  Although I think an entirely constitution would be desirable, the no campaign has not explained who would write it or who would elect them. Moreover, the current idea for the transition is for the next president and parliament to be in charge of writing a new constitution, which seems like a more democratic process: an elected parliament will be more representative, after all, than an appointed committee to draft a constitution. I'm not sure I buy the argument that moving too fast benefits the NDP and Muslim Brotherhood, either — this seems undemocratic, an election is an election.

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The "noes" ask the army for room

Below is the English version of a letter circulating, drafted by a coalition of groups advocating a "no" vote in tomorrow's constitutional referendum. Earlier this week the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces threatened that any protests on referendum day would be dealt with under anti-looting legislation, which carries the possibility of the death penalty.

To: The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces:

On the occasion of the upcoming referendum on the constitutional amendments scheduled for Saturday March 19, 2011, we would like to address your efforts to push the wheel of democracy forward and your role in protecting Egyptian citizens and safeguarding the freedom of expression in this critical phase of Egyptian history.

We the undersigned do not agree to the proposed constitutional amendments. Based on this position and our keenness that the referendum be conducted democratically in an environment that permits opposing opinions, we shall be working during this period leading up to the day of the referendum, to encourage Egyptian citizens to participate in the referendum. We shall be campaigning and advocating our position, which is the refusal of the constitutional amendments.

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Referendum around the corner

Well, the first milestone of Egypt's democratic transition will take place (we think) the day after tomorrow. The country is in an uproar over the referendum on constitutional amendments, with debates breaking out everywhere -- on the street, in doctors' waiting rooms, on Facebook --between those who will vote "yes" and those who will say "no." Young people are waiting in round-the-block lines to get into lectures about the amendments (!). 

(Ruby's 2004 song "Whenever I Tell Him Yes." It's jokingly circulating on Facebook as "the referendum song.")

I've laid out the arguments against the amendments already. So today I'll translate a little from a letter by professor and activist Leila Soueif, who says she is going to vote yes because she want to make sure the army is in power for the shortest possible time period, and she fears the consequences of the army's ongoing violence against citizens.

Soueif says that the army will never support "root change" and that the best way to move forward is to elect a parliament soon. She says that one shouldn't over-estimate the gains that the NDP and the Brotherhood will make in parliamentary elections if they are held in two months, arguing that "those who raise these fears ignore the difference between elections in which participation was very weak and elections in which participation will be much higher."  

"In the absence of a parliament," writes Soueif, "It's impossible to imagine that there will be amendments to the Universities Law, or the Judicial Powers Law, or the Administrative Prosecutor Law, or the Associations law, or the Labour law or the dozens of laws that require amendments as a first step towards social change..."

However the vote goes (and I do hope that it is at least generally organized and clean), it's been fascinating to watch this debate explode, and to see the level of political awareness and curiosity after so many years of cynicism and resignation. It strikes me that there is quite a bit of discomfort not just with challenges to authority but with differences of opinion in Egyptian society today, and part of the road ahead is learning to publicly, forcefully but civilly disagree. Unfortunately, the army is proving that it doesn't really get democracy and public debate by issuing an order that nobody discuss the referendum for the next 48 hours. 

(Thanks for great links to Hossam and Mandouza)

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.