x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Secular coalition 'too disorganised' to win Egyptian referendum

Almost eight out of 10 voted 'yes' in referendum for more limited constitutional changes than youth-led secular movement wanted, highlighting their disarray and political weakness.

CAIRO // Egypt's secular opposition passed out millions of fliers, took out advertisements and lined up prominent pundits in their campaign against Saturday's landmark referendum on constitutional change.

The result? It won the support of less than a quarter of voters.

This ballot box setback highlighted the disarray and political weakness of the youth-led opposition movement that has become the symbol of Egypt's democratic revolt, analysts and activists said.

Magdy Abdulhamid, the director of the Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement, which fielded 600 vote monitors on referendum day, said: "The democratic forces in Egypt, specifically the newly appearing democratic forces, are not organised and didn't have the time to organise themselves."

By contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's powerful Islamist opposition group that supported the amendments, ran a successful grassroots campaign that included the distribution to the poor of food parcels containing flour, sugar and cooking oil and were emblazoned with the word "Yes", said Mr Abdulhamid, a past critic of the Brotherhood.

The package of constitutional revisions was approved by 77.2 per cent of the voters, with the Brotherhood's support accounting for about one third of those votes, Mr Abdulhamid estimated.

The military's public endorsement of the amendments also played a major role in their passage, he said.

The revisions will limit the president to two terms and reduce the powers of the executive.

For youth opposition groups that urged the scrapping of the constitution and the writing of an entirely new one, the vote came before they were able to organise a large get-out-the-vote campaign, said Yasser el Hawary, a spokesman for a group called Youth for Justice and Freedom.

"We need to work hard to get people to start thinking for themselves about political issues," said Mr el Hawary. He said Saturday's vote reflected the will of an electorate that is still "confused" by political upheaval.

"We have to build from the ground up, we have to make new parties. This effort will persist for a long while," he said.

Mr el Hawary said he was confident that youth activists would be better prepared in elections that have not yet been scheduled but are expected later this year. He insisted that "this does not mean the Islamists have already won the election".

But the vote exposed the youthful opposition's still limited capacity to disseminate its message.

Youth activists focused heavily on communicating online through Facebook, Twitter and videos on YouTube, none of which are accessible to a majority of Egypt's 82 million people. They also passed out fliers in Cairo and other major cities and took out advertisements in newspapers.

In part, the challenge of better communicating their message was a result of youth having no political parties of their own. On March 6, youth leaders announced the formation of a new, unnamed political party, but said it would not be up and running before the referendum.

The Brotherhood and other Islamist groups were the only opposition factions to join the military and the former ruling party, the National Democratic Party, in support of the referendum's proposed changes to the constitution.

Every secular political party, including the Wafd, the Tagammu and the Nasserites opposed the amendments, joining youth protest groups, the Coptic church and a number of prominent political figures such as Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, and Mohammed ElBaradei, the former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Both men have announced their intention to run for the presidency in elections later this year.

Only 41 per cent of Egypt's 45 million eligible voters turned out on Saturday to cast ballots, and the opposition's failure to garner more support after assembling such a large coalition "reveals the crisis within the Egyptian elite", said Fahmy Howeidy, a well-known moderate Islamist who writes a regular column for Al Shorouk, an Egyptian daily.

"The elite had a wide campaign to refuse the amendments, but it was shown they were only talking to each other, and the majority of the Egyptian public has nothing to do with their positions," Mr Howeidy wrote on Tuesday.

"No one asks what is the real calibre of such [secular opposition forces], specifically the fact that some are illegitimate and have been working explicitly for 30 years without justifying their existence."