Right now, you can bet that many of the youths, activists and opposition parties that played a leading role in Egypt’s revolution are scratching their heads. After spearheading a popular uprising that unseated one of the Middle East’s most entrenched autocrats, they lost a constitutional referendum on Saturday by overwhelming numbers. According to official results, the constitutional referendum passed with 77.2 percent of the vote. That’s the type of overwhelming percentage that Mubarak captured when he won his presidential election in 2005—except that vote was rigged.
The activists I spoke to in Tahrir Square last week described the constitutional referendum in fairly dire terms. For many of them, passage of the referendum represented nothing less than the beginning of a return to authoritarianism, Exhibit A in their argument that the military is trying to restore the old order. For others, it was just smart politics. If the referendum passed, it would mean that the military could keep the process moving quickly, and early elections in their view will favor the Muslim Brotherhood and holdovers from the old regime.
So, how are we to explain why Egyptians came out in such great numbers in favor of the referendum?
Harvard professor and Egypt expert Tarek Masoud has put together a fascinating chart that helps us understand the forces behind Saturday’s vote.
Masoud’s chart shows that there is a strong correlation between illiteracy and the likelihood that people voted yes on the constitutional referendum. Specifically, the higher the percentage of illiteracy in a particular governorate, the more likely voters were to favor the referendum. I called Professor Masoud to get his read on the numbers and how he sees last Saturday’s vote. “The people who voted no want no vestige of Mubarak’s regime to remain,” says Masoud. “The people who voted yes want the revolution behind them. Their concern is moving from this new period of uncertainty to a better form of the status quo ante.”
It’s not that the “yes crowd” misses Mubarak (although a few may). It’s that they may have a more conservative outlook than the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square, and they are anxious to see the economy rebound and tourists return. They are the pro-stability crowd, if you will, and the prospect of throwing 100 percent of the constitution out the window unnerved them.
I find Masoud’s explanation persuasive. But some people will look at the data and see something else. The governorates with high percentages of illiteracy are Egypt’s most rural stretches. The people are poor, sometimes desperately so. If the people living in these rural outposts can’t read the fine print in the constitutional amendments for themselves, then the fact that they came out in droves for it might suggest they were told how to vote. Or, at least given incentives to vote one way, like in the bad old days when the regime would buy votes for a bag of sugar or a little cooking oil. These explanations would point to the organizational prowess of the Muslim Brotherhood (a group with a wide membership) or former members of Mubarak’s ruling party (a group well schooled in bribery).
It’s impossible to say for sure, and of course, what could be true in one governorate might not be true in another. But if bribery and corruption were part of the explanation, you would expect we would have heard more accounts of it by now. And Masoud, who has closely studied previous Egyptian elections, pointed out to me that the places where the yes vote was high didn’t neatly correlate to where the Muslim Brotherhood has done well in the past.
Instead, the simplest explanation may be the best: A great number of everyday Egyptians are proud of the changes they have seen, but they aren’t eager for the revolution to dig deeper. Instead, they want to see Egypt’s political classes begin to repair the state without tearing the whole structure down to do it. Those who wish to lead Egypt — the youth activists and opposition parties in particular — would be wise to adjust to this reality. Although the people who continue to turn out in Tahrir Square these days wanted a no vote, it wasn’t an opinion reflected in the countryside. To paraphrase Professor Masoud, sometimes what happens in Tahrir Square stays in Tahrir Square.