Analysis: Egypt vote muddies political outlook

By Hamza Hendawi

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Jan. 19 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

FILE - In this file photo taken Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, an Egyptian woman wears a t-shirt with a photo of Egypt's Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi outside a polling station on the first day of voting in the country's constitutional referendum in Cairo, Egypt. While last week's constitutional referendum approved the draft charter, the low turnout - less than 39 percent - has put on display the country's enduring divisions six months after the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and nearly three years after autocrat Hosni Mubarak was overthrown.

Eman Helal, File, Associated Press

CAIRO — For all the self-congratulatory headlines in Egypt's pro-military media, the results of last week's constitutional referendum may have fallen short of the emphatic popular mandate the nation's military chief was looking for before announcing his presidential run.

Moreover, the outcome — nearly everyone who cast a ballot approved the draft constitution, but turnout was low, at less than 39 percent — has put on display the country's enduring divisions six months after the ouster of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi and nearly three years after autocrat Hosni Mubarak was overthrown.

Another worrying aspect is that young Egyptians appear to have stayed away from the polls, probably because of frustration over the lack of real change and anger over the perceived return of Mubarak-era figures, along with such hated practices as police brutality and other heavy-handed tactics by security agencies.

The 98.1 percent "yes" vote cannot be seen as an accurate reflection of public opinion in "a country as big and as complex and divided as Egypt," said Khaled Fahmy, a political analyst who chairs the history department at the American University in Cairo. "This is a very alarming figure. ... Something has gone very wrong."

Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the military chief who led the July 3 coup that removed Morsi, has yet to say outright whether he will seek the land's highest office. His supporters had viewed the Jan. 14-15 referendum on the new constitution as a vote on the general's possible presidential bid.

The relatively low turnout, however, should be reason for concern for the general and his supporters.

While no one is claiming the vote was rigged or fraudulent, it took place amid a climate of intimidation, with a de facto ban on campaigning for a "no" vote and a media frenzy that projected a "yes" vote as the only way out of the country's deadly turmoil and economic and social ills.

Islamists effectively boycotted the two-day vote, honoring a call by Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood to shun the referendum as a sham. The ultraconservative Salafi party Al-Nour, which sided with el-Sissi against Morsi, also appeared to have failed to rally its supporters for a "yes" vote, reducing the turnout. The party won about 25 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections two years ago.

"Even the most optimistic of el-Sissi's supporters admit that the turnout was less than ideal," prominent analyst Nervana Mahmoud wrote in her blog on Sunday. "Despite aggressive campaigning by state and private media as well as top religious figures and political parties, including the Salafi Al-Nour, the overall turnout failed to reach the desired target of 40 percent or above."

However, Mahmoud contends that the Brotherhood's call for a boycott was effective mostly in peripheral regions to the south and west of Cairo, a trend she said confirmed the group's isolation and loss of support in the densely populated urban areas.

The relatively low turnout, according to three senior officials familiar with the thinking of the military's leadership, suggests the emergence of serious cracks in the el-Sissi-led coalition that led the opposition and eventual removal of Morsi last year. The military, they said, is looking into whether its liberal and secular allies as well as the Salafis did not do enough to get out the vote.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media about the military's deliberations, said the military in the meantime is convinced that el-Sissi cannot let down the nearly 20 million Egyptians who voted "yes."

"The military will not stand on the sidelines while the country is divided and facing challenges at home and abroad," said one of the officials. "Egypt needs a military leader and people want el-Sissi to run."

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