Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1181, (23 - 29 January 2014)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1181, (23 - 29 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

The MB and the constitution

The failure of the Muslim Brotherhood’s campaign against the referendum on the new constitution is another sign of its declining popularity, writes Galal Nassar

Al-Ahram Weekly

Since the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi in July last year, the Muslim Brotherhood has used every political, media and foreign relations asset it has in its battle against the current Egyptian leadership. However, has it made any inroads into it? It looks as if in spite of the Brotherhood’s relentless persistence, its campaign has not been successful. Certainly, the group cannot claim last week’s constitutional referendum as a victory.
Voter turnout in referendums and elections held in the countries of the South and in emergent democracies is generally relatively low compared to other countries in the world. According to a report by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) on public participation in elections in the world from 1945 to 2001, the highest voter turnout rates during this period were registered by the Australian region with an average 83 per cent of registered voters turning out to vote.
The African region, by contrast, with a figure of 63.5 per cent, fell at the other end of the scale. The Middle East region came in at a rate of 72.2 per cent of registered voters turning out to vote. At country level within this latter region, Egypt, with an average voter turnout rate of 45.3 per cent during the period, ranked 40th out of the 43 African countries in the study.
The phenomenon of low voter turnout rates in Egypt merits closer study, especially given the country’s record of pioneering political experiments. However, in any case, a relatively low turnout in the referendum ballot, if indeed that was the case, would be nothing new in Egypt, and therefore it cannot easily be attributed to the Muslim Brotherhood’s campaign against the constitutional referendum.
Instead, any number of factors come into play. One factor weighing on the recent poll might have been the intensive propaganda campaign to mobilise a yes vote for the constitution that could have alienated some quarters of the youth who may have believed that the main force behind the campaign was the business magnates associated with the former Mubarak regime that was toppled by the 25 January Revolution. If, indeed, such youths boycotted the polls for this reason, the likelihood is that they did not do so because they opposed the new constitution but rather because they rejected the fanfare surrounding the poll.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership holds that all those who did not take part in the referendum boycotted it and hence rejected the constitution, opposed the current leadership, and, in another logical leap, supported the Brotherhood and its call for the “restoration of legitimacy” among other things.
Apart from the huge logical leaps in this line of reasoning, it has no solid grounds to stand on. The likelihood is that the majority of those who did not go to the polls are not Muslim Brotherhood supporters. They may not be supporters of any particular group or party at all. More generally, people may have been kept from the polls for any number of reasons, such as a lack of time or even a lack of interest. Some of these reasons may be the same ones that have kept Egyptians and Arabs from taking part in any polls in their countries during the half-century that was the subject of the IDEA study.
In fact, the line of reasoning adopted by the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood is the easy way out. If they had really thought that they could turn the referendum into a demonstration of support for them and their opposition to the current leadership, they would have campaigned to get people out to the polls in order to hand the constitution a no vote. That, at least, might have produced a more tangible sign. The fact that the Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders did not follow this route suggests that they suspected they would not be able to drum up the outcome they were looking for and that the referendum would in fact be just another indication of their declining popularity.
Of course, part of the problem is that both sides in the current conflict appear to have made up their minds from the outset that the outcome of referendum on the constitution would be an unequivocal declaration of support for one side and opposition to the other. A large vote in favour of the constitution would mean that the people were behind the current leadership, and a large vote against it would signal opposition to that leadership and support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Again, however, the reasoning here is faulty. Some people might have felt that the constitution was flawed and in need of radical amendments but have preferred to sit out the vote. The refusal to go to the polls in this case cannot be read as support for the Muslim Brotherhood or opposition to the current leadership. By the same token, some people may have voted in favour of the constitution for reasons that have less to do with the substance of the constitution than with their desire for stability, a return to normality and a revival of economic activity. Certainly, their yes vote cannot be read as a sign of support for, or opposition to, either one camp or the other.
It remains the case that a significant number of voters probably chose to keep away from the polls due to the fears and tensions surrounding the polling days. Critics of the Muslim Brotherhood hold it responsible for these. They point to the rumour campaigns launched ahead of the polls on various websites and in different news outlets warning of disturbances and other dangers during the polls. Some have also accused the Muslim Brotherhood of organising the outbreaks of violence that did occur during the referendum.
As a preliminary response to these issues one can draw on the simple reasoning that holds that the restoration of stability, the end of the violence and the easing of political tensions, together with the resumption of the wheels of government and the economy, are all in the interests of the political leadership. These factors coincide with what the majority of the Egyptian people want, especially at a time when they feel that their personal, social and economic security is at stake. These factors would therefore be among those that would naturally bring people out to the polls and broaden support for a yes vote to the new constitution.
The Muslim Brotherhood, for its part, felt its position to be threatened by such a prospect, and therefore it saw it to be in its best interests to drive as many people as possible away from the polls. A climate rife with tension and potential dangers would serve its purposes perfectly.
Ultimately, the turnout in the constitutional referendum was considerably higher than voter figures for previous referendums, however. It is precisely because the Muslim Brotherhood sought to turn the referendum into a different type of poll that its campaign to boycott it became just the latest stage in the Muslim Brotherhood’s decline in Egypt.

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