Reading the Referendum by Mustafa El-Labbad

Mustafa El-Labbad, Sunday 27 Mar 2011

Al-Sharq Center for Regional and Strategic has launched a report series entitled: Egypt after January 25. Below is the text of the first report of the series on the Constitutional amendments

On March 19th, Egyptians flocked heavily to the voting polls for the first time in sixty years, for the purpose of a referendum on amending some articles in the 1971 Constitution which Hosni Mubarak had used to rule Egypt for three decades. 18,537,954 Egyptians participated in the referendum, out of the 45 million people eligible to vote, making the rate of turnout 41.19%. 77.2% of participants voted in favor of the amendments and 22.8% voted against them. The number of valid votes was 18,366,764 while 171,190 votes were invalid, that is, just under 1% of total votes.

The referendum was the first mass accrual after the victory of the Egyptian Revolution that forced former President Hosni Mubarak to step down from power on February 11. It was accompanied by a clear sorting of political movements and currents in terms of supporting these amendments or opposing them, a sorting process that surpassed the screening of constitutional texts and their legal and rights implications and touched on the features of the new political scene and the road that Egypt will take in the coming period.

The screening emerged clearly through approval of the amendments by the Islamic movement and remnants of the former regime, backed by an important sector of
Egyptians clearly influenced by the fears of a constitutional and security vacuum and fears of economic collapse. These fears were clearly and heavily used by the Muslim Brotherhood, the remnants of the former ruling National Party and the official media before the vote. Conversely, other political currents of liberals, Nasserites and leftists rejected these constitutional amendments, in addition to the emergence of a Christian voting bloc that voted in overwhelming majority against the amendments. Another important group of youth of the revolution, aspiring to radical and comprehensive political change starting with dropping the 1971 Constitution and drafting a new one to achieve their ambitions for change, also voted against the amendments.

The committee to amend the constitution was headed by chancellor Tariq al-Bishri, who was commissioned by the Supreme Military Council. Its members included a number of constitutional scholars. Al-Bishri is a high-ranking, national figure with Islamic affiliation and is respected by the majority of political currents.

The amendments reduced the mandate of the president to two terms only, each of four years, instead of unlimited mandate periods of six years. The amendments also restricted the president's authority to dissolve parliament and declare a state of emergency,
and opened the door for running for presidency to anyone able to collect 30 thousand signatures of citizens or 30 signatures of members of parliament, instead of the impossible conditions provided for by the previous 1971 Constitution, which was amended in 2005 to be commensurate with the appointment of Jamal Mubarak, son of the deposed president.

Aside from the operative text of the amendments, their supporters argue that they pave the way for parliamentary elections within a few months and then presidential elections, in a manner that allows the transfer of power from the military to representatives of popular will with the least amount of political and economic losses. Their opponents, however, see them as a patching of a constitution that dissolved anyway with the triumph of the revolution; thus, drafting a new constitution to guarantee the rights of Egyptians and their fundamental freedoms is more worthwhile, aside from the fact that the constitutional amendments still leave broad powers to the president which lead – according to opponents of the amendments - to the continued dominance of the president in managing the political process in the country.

The main concern of the opponents is summarized not in the debate on the amendments themselves, but in their political outcome leading to accelerated parliamentary elections, which will in turn likely lead to sharing of the next parliament between the Muslim Brotherhood and the remnants of the former ruling National Party, with the support and blessing of the army.

The discussion on the text and spirit of the constitutional amendments was the justification for the dispute between supporters and opponents on the surface, but at core, the conflict was over the period of time that the various parties wanted before reaching the next parliamentary elections. While supporters of the amendments wanted to hasten parliamentary elections due to the influence and impact that these supporters have on different civic sectors, giving them greater opportunity to win a heavy parliamentary bloc, opponents of the amendments wanted to prolong the transition period until parliamentary elections in order to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood and remnants of the former ruling National Party from achieving this goal. At the same time, the opponents wanted to exploit the relatively longer time available - in case of voting against - to crystallize the social forces emerging with the triumph of the revolution, especially the youth, into new political parties capable of competition and self-definition on a reasonable mass scale. It can be confidently said that the most important political result of the referendum was the rapid progress of the Muslim Brotherhood to the center of the political scene after the victory of the January 25, 2011 revolution.

Background of the vote in each province
Although the turnout in this referendum was 41%, it is less than prevailing regional averages, which stood at 77% in Turkey, for example, in the referendum on constitutional amendments in 2010. However, due to the loss of Egyptian confidence in the entire voting process over the past six decades, this percentage can be considered very justified and perhaps above expectation. A significant statement in this regard was made by the chairman of the committee supervising the referendum, Chancellor Ahmed Mohamed Attia, who said that he personally “is going for the first time to vote!”
The provinces that voted in favor can be classified into six groups in descending order:
1- Remote provinces such as al-Wadi al-Jadeed and Matrouh
The highest rates of “yes” votes were in the two remote provinces of al-Wadi al-Jadeed (west) and Matrouh (northwest) which are traditionally far from political movement in Egypt with its center in major cities.
2- Rural provinces in northern Egypt such as Kafr el-Sheikh, Sharqiyya,  Qalyubiyya, Dakahlia
The placement of rural provinces in northern Egypt in the second group in terms of intensity of voting “yes” can be attributed by the spread of traditional Egyptian culture that is more inclined to cultural concepts such as “stability” and “restoration of calm,” concepts which were strongly propagated in state-owned media just before the referendum and openly supported by the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis who have great impact in rural areas and popular neighborhoods in the cities. There is an exception that needs explanation, however, in the Gharbiyyah province which was the lowest rural province to vote “yes.” The discrepancy in the voting behavior of Gharbiyyah may be due to the presence of an industrial labor base in the capital of the province, Mahalla al-Kubra, that witnessed the events of labor and mass violence on April 6, 2008.
3- Rural provinces in southern Egypt: Asyout, Sohag and Menya
Despite the similarity in cultural environment of rural provinces in northern and southern Egypt in terms of their rural nature, southern provinces were less than northern ones to vote “yes.” This can be explained by two factors:
The first is the deteriorating average standard of living in rural southern provinces compared to similar ones in the north, and the second is the presence of higher numbers of Christians in the southern provinces, who overwhelmingly chose to vote “no.” This sectarian explanation is most apparent in Itfeeh village which saw sectarian violence after Salafis demolished a church a few weeks ago. This village has the lowest level of “yes” votes in the referendum.
4- Provinces of the Suez Canal area: Ismailia, Suez, Port Said
These three provinces are the most affected among Egyptian ones by the Arab-Israeli conflict, given their geographical proximity of the arenas of confrontation with Israel and their important roles in popular resistance. They also have varying feelings of historical injustice stemming from a sense of neglect by the Egyptian state in general. This feeling is exacerbated in the province of Suez in particular, which saw the highest levels of violence during the revolution. According to this hypothesis, it was expected that the Suez province would have the least “yes” vote among the other two provinces in the Suez Canal area, but its voting behavior was the highest among the group in support of the constitutional amendments. This can be interpreted in light of the great influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which enjoys a wide presence in Suez. The motives behind the voting behavior of Port Said province, which came last among the three provinces making up the group, can be inferred from the decision of the deposed President Mubarak to abolish the position of Port Said as a free zone, in the framework of his plan to centralize economic resources in the hands of a narrow category of stakeholders associated with the regime. This abolishment caused great harm to the interests of large segments of the population of Port Said, which was the only Egyptian province to have an assassination attempt on Hosni Mubarak at the start of the third millennium, and is the same province that voted against Mubarak in favor of opposition candidate Ayman Nour in the presidential elections of 2005.
5- Provinces that rely on tourism as a main activity: south Sinai and Aswan
The voting behavior of these provinces can be explained in their being based primarily on tourism for livelihood; workers in this sector are typically concerned of it being affected negatively if religious currents get close to the center of political decision-making, which can lead to - from their point of view - possible restrictions on tourist traffic.
6- Major cities in Greater Cairo and Alexandria
Lowest rates of “yes” votes were in two main areas distinguished by an urban, not rural, character. The first area includes Greater Cairo (especially Cairo and Giza provinces) in addition to the two provinces representing the direct urban spread of Cairo: October and Hilwan. It is noted here that “yes” votes in the most prestigious neighborhoods of Cairo such as Qasr al-Nil, Dokki and Maadi declined to almost equal the “no” votes. The only exception to this observation is in one of the provinces of Greater Cairo, Qalyubiyya, which also voted “yes” but at a higher percentage than the average for this group, due to its rural, non-urban character. The second area which had the lowest rates of “yes” votes was Alexandria province and its geographical spread in the province of Biheira, despite the known Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi presence in Alexandria. These regions represent the largest urban demographic heart of Egypt, containing the middle and upper classes with a better economic and educational level relative to other provinces.

Results of the vote in the referendum in the 27 provinces, in descending order, beginning with the provinces that had the highest percentage of choosing "yes" and moving to the lowest*:


Yes (%)

No (%)

Al-Wadi al-Jadeed









Kafr el-Sheikh



Bani Sweif



North Sinai




































South Sinai












Port Said



















* Source: Al-Ahram Newspaper, 20-3-2011


Dr. Mustafa El-Labbad is the head of ©Al Sharq Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies, Cairo,

The report is published by special arrangement between Ahram Online and the Al Sharq Center

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