Editorials 20 June, 2013

Voting Indicators in the Egyptian Elections and the Constitutional Referendum


Faris Abo Hilal

Faris Abo Hilal is a researcher specializing in Middle Eastern affairs. His studies and reports appear in peer-reviewed journals and Arab research centers, and he writes opinion articles for a number of newspapers and Arabic-language websites. He currently works as a researcher and producer of political programs and documentaries with Sage Media in London. He worked as a part-time researcher at Zaytuna Center for Studies and Consultancies in Beirut in 2006 and 2007.


The referendum over the Egyptian constitution has taken place, and the new constitution has become a fait accompli despite the continuing disagreement among Egyptian political and revolutionary factions regarding its content. Nevertheless, many questions on the constitution and referendum have not yet been resolved and may remain open for a long time. The most important element in this debate is the voting indicators that were exhibited during the constitutional referendum and during the parliamentary and presidential elections that preceded it. Voting patterns are, in effect, messages and signals that should be interpreted by all sides, whether pro-government or opposition, in order to prepare for the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Participation Rates: Between an Objective and a Wishful Analysis

Since the close of the voting process on the new Egyptian constitution in December 2012, opposition factions have been using voter turnout figures and participation rates in order to prove that far fewer people voted in the referendum on the constitution than in the parliamentary and presidential elections, or in the vote on the amended constitutional declaration on March 19, 2011. According to the opposition, these figures show that a state of popular discontent exists regarding the constitution and, secondly, that there is popular reluctance as to political participation due to the mismanagement of public affairs by the presidency and the government.

If we compare voter turnout rates during the constitutional referendum and the other electoral rounds, we find that the participation rates in the referendum were indeed lower than in the parliamentary and presidential races: 32.9 percent of eligible voters participated in the constitutional referendum,[1] as opposed to 55.7 percent who cast their votes during the last parliamentary elections,[2] and 49.6 percent who voted in the second round of the presidential elections held in June, 2012.[3] The possible reasons for this significant variation merit discussion.

By comparing the data for the referendum on the new constitution and for the earlier referendum on the amended constitutional declaration, we find that the difference in the numbers and percentages of voters are not as large as the opposition claims: the participation rate for the 2011 referendum on the constitutional declaration was around 35.7 percent (18.54 million voters according to the official website of the High Elections Commission), a percentage that went down to 32.9 percent in the constitutional referendum in 2012, reflecting a participation of 17.06 million voters.[4] This indeed shows a slight decline in participation rates, but not as dramatic as some are claiming.

An objective reading of the participation rates shows a decline of less than 3 percent between the voter turnout in the 2011 constitutional declaration referendum and the 2012 referendum on the new constitution. This is a natural outcome of the receding popular enthusiasm for political participation with the passage of time: the first referendum was conducted less than two months after the ousting of former President Hosni Mubarak, while the second referendum took place two years after the revolution, a time span sufficient to cool popular enthusiasm for participation in the political process. Comparing the first phase of popular participation after the revolution, with all its revolutionary momentum, with the current phase would be inappropriate; moreover, one must not ignore the effect of time in decreasing hopes among the non-politicized segment of Egyptians, as to their ability to change the general situation by participating in elections. However, the idea that the lower participation rate is a reflection of popular "alienation" from the political process and the mismanagement of the country can only be based on a wishful reading of these events that is devoid of objective analysis.

Between the Priorities of the People and those of the Elite

As previously mentioned, the voter turnout rates for both the 2012 constitutional referendum and the 2011 referendum on the constitutional declaration were far lower than the participation rates during the parliamentary and presidential elections. What lies behind this significant decline? What message should the political elite ruling the country and the opposition extract from these numbers?

The higher voter turnout for the parliamentary elections compared to the two referendums is due to several factors. The most important of these is the role played by social, familial, and even sectarian relations between the candidates and the voters, prompting many voters to cast ballots in support of candidates who belong to the same family, clan, or religious affiliation. One should also not discount the effect of the post-revolutionary period. Moreover, the large number of political parties participating in the elections, as well as the intense campaigning beforehand, also contributed to the relatively high voter turnout rates.

As for the presidential elections, the intense polarization between the forces of political Islam and some revolutionary factions and parties on the one hand, and the supporters of the former regime and the Islamists' enemies on the other, led to a spike in participation rates.

However, the most important factor in raising the voter turnout in the parliamentary and presidential elections was the fact that voters were convinced that positive change can be enacted only through the parliament and the presidency. They represent the legislative and executive authorities as well as the power of supervision and control, and the parliament has an important role in providing services. These authorities have a direct impact on the daily lives of citizens, whether through the passing of laws that serve the people, or the supervision imposed by the parliament over the cabinet's conduct and performance, or the broad executive powers of the President, all of which can change the miserable conditions of many Egyptians.

This interpretation of the figures exhibits the wide gulf between the priorities of the elite and those of the people. When the political battle over the drafting of the constitution was ongoing and escalating between the elites, the Egyptian people were not nearly as engrossed in the debate or interested in the referendum itself, compared to the parliamentary and presidential elections. The same applies to the 2011 referendum over the constitutional declaration. The reason for this behavior may relate to the fact that the majority of the people were unconvinced as to the potential for change offered through the constitution, while believing that the work of the executive and legislative powers may actually bring real and tangible changes to the living conditions of Egyptian citizens.

The important message behind the low participation rates in the 2012 constitutional referendum is that Egyptian citizens yearn for real change away from ideological squabbles; they care most about escaping the throes of poverty and hunger through the stability of the state and through hard work toward positive change, and not the ideological conflicts that have endangered the stability of the country. This also means that the elite must postpone its ideological conflicts and give the priority to realistic change on the ground.

This is not to underestimate the importance of the constitution, as it is the foundation upon which laws will be formulated, directly affecting the lives of citizens. Rather, attempts for change should focus on modifying laws, propelling the economy forward, combating corruption, reforming the employment process in the public institutions and the judiciary, as well as other aspects of day-to-day life that affect citizens. This is especially true when we take into account the fact that most Arab states have progressive constitutions, but they are only applied in a manner that suits the interests of the authorities and the elites.

The Electoral Message to Islamists and the Government

If the results of the referendum are an indication of the popularity of the Islamists and the parties that support them, then this means that the Islamists continue to garner the highest approval rates in the rural areas and in Upper Egypt, as these regions voted heavily in favor of the constitution, strongly promoted by the Islamists. However, the situation was different in the main cities. The majority in Cairo and the Gharbiya and Munufiya governorates, for example, rejected the constitution; while Alexandria, al-Daqhaliya, and Port Said voted for the constitutional draft, but with a lower favorable vote than in Upper Egypt and the countryside. It should also be noted that the capitals of these governorates, such as al-Mansura, capital of al-Daqhaliya, voted against the constitution.[5]

The principal message in these results is directed at the Islamist forces, which were apparently incapable of making inroads within the educated elite in the main urban centers. This forces them to adopt policies that foster a social consensus centered around them, in order to reach these elites. The importance of this indicator lies in the fact that the usual motor of change is the middle class, which means that the Islamists, if they remain in power after the coming elections, will have to seek common ground between themselves and the middle-class elite.

Furthermore, a significant portion of this elite used to benefit from the former regime in legitimate and illegitimate ways, and therefore the new regime must reassure all these sectors that it will seek to serve the entirety of the Egyptian people. That is, despite the regime's focus on helping the marginalized population, this aid will not take place at the expense of other sections of the population.

The figures also show a high rate of votes against the constitution in districts with heavy Coptic presence, a fact that should prompt the Islamists to formulate creative strategies in order to reassure this section of the population and provide answers to assuage its fears, even if they perceive Coptic concerns as disingenuous or unjustified.

The Electoral Message to the Opposition

The messages that the referendum provides for the opposition are no less important than those directed at the Islamists, the President and the government. The most important of these is that the opposition elite and parties, who consider themselves as "urban," have so far failed in reaching the poor, uneducated and marginalized classes. This is clearly apparent in the results from the rural areas and Upper Egypt, which voted significantly in favor of the constitution.

This elite has failed to produce a political discourse that is convincing to the poorer sections of the population, and it has also failed, unlike the Islamist movements, in communicating directly with the populace through its party organization, associations, and institutions (that is, in the terms of social movement theory, its "institutions for popular mobilization"). This means that the "civic forces" will remain incapable of competing with the Islamists unless they change their condescending behavior toward the popular classes (which are often described in their rhetoric as illiterate, ignorant and incapable of making decisions), and begin to adopt policies that allow them to communicate with the masses and assess the needs of the marginalized sectors. They must treat the lower classes with parity rather than condescension, and must present them with a convincing political discourse.

The second indicator that the opposition must take into consideration is the great number of votes in favor of the constitution compared with the vote in favor of Dr. Muhammad Morsi in the second round of the presidential elections. The percentages of voters supporting the constitution were higher than those for Dr. Morsi in all Egyptian governorates except for Alexandria, Cairo, and among Egyptians living abroad. In seven governorates, the difference exceeded 20 points: al-Sharqiya, al-Munufiya, Suhag, Qina, Aswan, al-Wadi al-Jadeed, and Luxor. In this regard, it is important to take into account the fact that the bloc that supported presidential candidate Abd al-Minim Abu al-Futuh voted (theoretically) in the second round for Dr. Morsi, and that the same bloc rejected the constitution in the last referendum.[6]

These figures show that there is now a larger proportion of Egyptians who approve of the new regime, or that the opposition's popularity is weaning, or both. This should prompt the opposition to deeply rethink its tactics and to change its strategy in order to garner more popularity and acceptance among the masses.



[1] See the High Elections Commission official website: http://referendum2012.elections.eg/results/referendum-results.

[2] There is a disagreement over the total participation rate, but the rate can be calculated based on the number of voters divided by the number of eligible voters: according to al-Ahram, 27,851,070 people voted (http://gate.ahram.org.eg/News/162896.aspx), out nearly 50 million eligible voters, according to the High Elections Commission; See al-Shab newspaper: http://elshaab.org/thread.php?ID=4589

[3] Participation rates by governorate are posted on the High Elections Commission website, from which the general participation rate can be calculated: http://presidential2012.elections.eg/index.php/round2-results

[4] For the constitutional declaration figures , see http://referendum2011.elections.eg/84-slideshow/158-2011-03-20-19-09-58.html; for the referendum on the constitution, see: https://referendum2012.elections.eg/results/referendum-results.

[5] For the full results of the constitutional referendum by governorate, see: https://referendum2012.elections.eg/results/referendum-results.

[6] For the full results of the presidential elections by governorate, see: http://presidential2012.elections.eg/index.php/round2-results.