Tensions Over Egypt’s Referendum Results

First published in the New Internationalist on December 24, 2012

On the evening of 22 December 2012, Egypt watched the primary results begin to trickle in after the divisive voting process of its constitutional referendum. Early figures indicate the ‘yes’ vote,  in support of the new charter, received around 64 per cent of the final result.  Only 3 of Egypt’s 27 governorates came out as ‘no’ victories, one of which was Cairo.

The referendum had been staggered over two consecutive Saturdays after a large number of judges refused to supervise the voting process in protest at President Mohamed Morsi’s 22 November Constitutional Decrees. They claimed Morsi’s self designated ‘immunity’ to them was an affront to the independence of their judicial branch of power.

Egypt’s provisional constitution mandates that members of the judiciary must oversee referendums and elections. The lack of judicial administration was a major worry for the president as it threatened any result’s legitimacy, but eventually 8,800 judges agreed to supervise.

Nonetheless, there have been accusations of voting improprieties during both rounds of the referendum: from vote rigging, to delays in opening polling stations, to absent judges.

The umbrella opposition group, the National Salvation Front (NSF), claimed to have witnessed ‘unprecedented rigging’ , including 750 violations across all 10 governorates in the first round. The National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) referred some 350 complaints from the first round to the Supreme Electoral Commission.

Despite the questions raised, the result itself will come as little surprise to most.  The opposition forces have long been divided on how to approach this referendum and perhaps it was this discord that cost them.

The ideologically inclined were pushing for a boycott on what they see as a wholly illegitimate process, whilst the more pragmatic implored a vote no. Even the NSF were unable to decide where they stood until just three days before the first round of the referendum, when they finally called on the people of Egypt to vote no.

Early reports on turnout indicate around 32 to34 per cent of the electorate, the numbers are incredibly low. To put this into perspective, the UK’s lethargic ‘Alternative Vote’ referendum in 2011 managed to get 42 per cent of the electorate to take part.

Political ennui and fatigue are sure to have contributed somewhat to Egypt’s poor turnout, but once you consider the ubiquity of the constitution in local media and the heated discussions that always seem to arise once the topic is brought up, it seems implausible to put too much weight on apathy.

The problem is that, by definition, boycotts are impossible to tally up, thus the extent to which this may have affected the final results are unknowable, especially given that thre were debates within the opposition about strategies right up until the final day’s voting.

An Egyptian man who wished to remain anonymous stated, ‘If you boycotted this referendum, then don’t come crying to us [the ‘no’ voters] about the state of this country… What do you achieve by boycotting? Nothing! You had to vote no to confront Morsi’. The man has been camping in Tahrir Square for the past three weeks and proudly states he will stay there and protest ‘until I die’ if necessary.

For now, the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi have the opportunity to capitalize on this victory.  They need to desperately turn their attention to softening the rhetoric, halting the ridiculous talk of conspiratorial coups and in so doing, hopefully slow the expanding disparity between the two sides.

Morsi recently postponed the implementation of his economic reforms in order to run a ‘social dialogue’ but with the NSF having refused every invitation to a national dialogue so far, it seems like the divisions of the past month, between Morsi’s Islamist supporters and the secular and liberal opposition, is likely to continue.

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