The Great Urban-Rural Struggle over the Constitution in Egypt

(By Juan Cole)

The tale of two constitutions, 2012 and 2014, in Egypt has to be seen in my view as significantly an urban-rural struggle. Neither referendum had a big turnout, but the one in 2012 only attracted 32.8% of the electorate, while apparently the turnout in the referendum just held was slightly higher at 36.6%.

Both processes were deeply flawed. In 2012, the Morsi government cracked down hard on protesters at the Presidential Palace, killing 6 of them in one day in early December. The judges, who were supposed to oversee the balloting and secure the ballot boxes, mostly went on strike. Brotherhood lawyers brought in to substitute could not have been trusted to be impartial. But the atmosphere in early 2014 was even more repressive, with even small demonstrations urging a “no” vote being disallowed and protesters arrested. The Muslim Brotherhood has been disbanded, expropriated and declared a terrorist organization. Some sources allege that 21,000 have been arrested since July. Obviously, this referendum cannot be certified to international standards as a free and fair election.

Still, the numbers coming out may tell us something if we look at them in context.

Clearly, many secularists, centrists, leftists and liberals were willing to come out and vote “no” in 2012. Important political forces rallied to try to defeat the Morsi constitution, to their credit, and they came within 14 points of doing so. In 2012 Cairo and Alexandria were solidly against it. In 2014, the Muslim religious forces, in contrast, simply refused to show up at the polls. In addition, some left-liberal groups also boycotted. The turnout in rural areas that tend to support the Muslim Brotherhood was low.

One difference is that only 63% of the voters in 2012 approved of the constitution. 63% of 32.8% is just over 20%. So only 1/5 of the electorate actually voted for the Morsi constitution.

In contrast, the government is saying that 97% of those who voted this week voted “yes.” In other words, the vast majority of those voters who opposed this constitution simply did not vote at all because of the boycott announced by the Muslim Brotherhood and the refusal of the Salafi fundamentalists to heed the call of their Nur Party to support the constitution (Salafis have distinctive dress, and were conspicuously absent from voting lines in places like Alexandria where they have some strength).

But 97% of 36.6% is 35.7%. So although a majority of Egyptians either abstained from voting or boycotted the vote, a bigger *proportion* of the electorate approved this constitution than the one in 2012.

In absolute numbers, in 2012 only 10.6 million of Egypt’s 53 million voters approved the Muslim Brotherhood constitution.
In absolute numbers, in 2012 only 10.6 million of Egypt’s 53 million voters approved the Muslim Brotherhood constitution.

This week, 19.4 million voters approved the more secular constitution.

Neither showing is very good for the organic law of a society. I suspect Gen. Abdel Fattah El Sisi, who orchestrated this new constitution and the referendum, must be disappointed that only a third of eligible voters turned out, not the half the Egyptian military had been hoping for.

What is striking in both referendums is the rural-urban split and the north-south split. The big urban areas in the center and north did not like the Muslim Brotherhood constitution, which put the interpretation of some Egyptian law (the statutes drawn from Islamic principles) in the hands of the al-Azhar Seminary, a step toward Iran-style theocracy.

Rural areas were more enthusiastic, though in the Delta in the north there is a substantial rural population that supports populism and leftist nationalism and has been tied to the state created by the young officers in 1952. The Egyptian military carried out land reform, breaking up enormous haciendas, and so created a rural middle class. Many in that class are still grateful to the government for their land. So the rural areas were contested between the Muslim Brotherhood and the nationalists, but in 2012 the Brotherhood had a majority in those governorates. The purchase of nationalism and gratitude to the military is substantially less in the southern rural provinces.

Turnout for the secular constitution this week was typically higher in urban areas than in rural ones. In Cairo, the turnout was 42% this time, compared to only 33.5% in 2012.

In contrast, in rural Minya south of Cairo, only 26% came out this time, whereas nearly 34% did in 2012. El Fayoum also saw a big fall-off in participation (Muhammad Badie, the imprisoned Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood is from there).

In some rural provinces, such as Gharbia, a majority of the electorate came out and most voted yes. Only a third voted in 2012, and a majority of those voted for the Brotherhood position. The only way to understand these numbers is to see Gharbia as deeply polarized, so that most nationalists and rural leftists boycotted in 2012, but they came out this time. In other words, there is very little overlap between the voters of 2012 and those of 2014 in this province. It is also likely that many voters changed their minds in the interim.

A Gallup poll showed that support for Morsi and the Brotherhood fell in Egypt from 50% late in 2012 to only 19% in early June of 2013. It likely has fallen further since then. Among Morsi’s failures was not stocking enough imported wheat in warehouses, causing rises in the price of bread, which hurts the poor above all.

So some northern rural governorates complicate the over-all story of an urban-rural split in Egypt. But the trend is certainly visible if you take the southern rural provinces into account in both elections.

Egypt is still only about 50% urban. Probably its urbanization has been slowed by a stagnant economy since 1970, which has led to millions living and working abroad instead of emigrating to the cities. Urban youth in particular are less religiously observant and more secular-minded than the rural population. Rural areas have lower literacy and lower internet penetration than urban ones.

Another divide between the two referendums has to do with the Coptic Christians. Many Copts boycotted the 2012 referendum, or voted “no.” The Coptic pope asked the Christians to support the 2014 constitution and from all accounts they did so. Copts are 10% of the population or about 5.3 million of the 53 million voters, so if they mostly sat out 2012 but mostly came out and voted “yes” during the past two days, they could account for 4 or 5 million of the extra 10 million votes in favor of this constitution over the 2012 document.

Here is the breakdown of the 2014 vote according to preliminary numbers, with some comparisons to 2012, by governorate, according to al-Ahram Newspaper:

Screen Shot 2014-01-17 at 4.18.44 AM


Related video:

VOA reports on the referendum in Egypt :

5 Responses

  1. Sounds about like the US, or most other countries then. I still maintain that taking dubious measures to ram something through committee is a much less serious offense than gunning down your political opponents in the street and arresting anyone who airs public dissent though.

  2. The urban-rural divide in Egypt and other places is a very important subject. If the pro-democracy side plays their cards right, they could exploit the situation to defeat the felool and fascists. Take a look at how Thaksin built a massive, popular political machine in Thailand to successfully challenge and terrify the country’s aristocratic and militaristic elite.

    Thaksin Shinawatra took a good look at Thailand’s economic structure, class divides, and demographic profile. He then built a strategy that enabled him to, against entrenched forces from the deep state, prevail in elections. Even the 2006 coup was eventually defeated with the coming to power of Yingluck Shinawatra.

    Egypt’s revolutionaries need to seriously consider how to build a political machine that can offer the rural and impoverished areas hope and expose the false, toxic promises of the felool/Sisi messiah cult.

    What would happen if they declared a credible, presidential candidate, perhaps Khaled Ali, and had this person tour the southern territories and promote a genuinely appealing message? The urban centers were fairly receptive toward Hamdeen Sabahi last time, so it would not be impossible to force the Sisi cult to smash itself against an ascending democratic entity by organizing around a credible electoral program. If the elections prove to be as fraudulent as the constitutional referendum was, the initiating a new revolution would facilitated by the unification and rejuvenation of democratic ideals.

    An anti-police state force isn’t just going to build itself. Both the street activism and political organization are necessary elements for success.

    I agree that the current constitution has somewhat more support overall, but the extreme repression and massive, intensive effort to squeeze out every last vote obscures the true degree of disparity.

  3. One of the this that repulses me most about the new regime in Egypt is that it is going for massive bloody repression even when it really isn’t nessesary or useful to retain power. If they make arrests for the hopeless efforts of the Strong Egypt party to encourage people to vote No and the sit-in of the deposed MB with bloody massacre what will they do if they ever are seriously challenged? Violence and repression seem to be in their DNA, they do it for no other reason than that they can get away with it.

  4. dear juan cole
    while reading your article on the referendum in egypt I want to share with you some of my thoughts on this article. Generally I appreciate your work very much. but this text makes me a bit wondering, I dont agree with your analysis.
    you are writing obviously this referendum cannot be certified to international standards as a free and fair election. but then you are undermining this estimate by taking the statements of the putschists and the state-controlled media as facts. there was a harsh repression in the weeks and months leading to the referendum, many protesters were arrested and much more intimidated. you are mentioning theses things. but do you really think their effect can be ignored ? people have been arrested because of showing the symbol of the `no´- campaign. even pupils have been arrested because they had been possessing an image of this symbol – and their teachers were interrogated (and perhaps punished) because they did not intervene. this was not a fair election. and it was not a secret one. open ballot papers had to be put in transparent ballot-boxes. (video on this fact: link to
    and – last but not least – there was no impartial persons or institution in the voting-rooms [or, as we have it in germany and you in the us, where members of both camps or parties are present at the voting-scene], nor was there an objective, transparent or impartial counting of the vote. so why do you take these numbers as facts and build upon them your political analysis ? this seems to me to be a kind of free hovering analysis.
    what begun in january three years ago was a revolutionary and democratic process. and this process led to the victory of the muslim brotherhood in the parliamentary elections in the end of 2011 and then to the victory of mohamed mursi as president in summer 2012. and this democratic process was aimed at improving the living conditions of the vast majority of the egyptian society. and it was aimed at strengthening the islamic tradition of the society resp. country. this was an other goal than that of the middle and upper class in the cities, of course. and of course it was a radical change to the politics of the country and a challenge to the old, military backed system – which now is again in power. the coup 7 months ago stopped this democratic process and reinstalled the old authorities – a goal which they had been pursuing since the beginning of the revolution.
    we in the west do have some difficulties to understand this – to understand the fact that a democratic process can be islamic too. because this contradicts our domestification that we ve got in school, in nearly all the media, and in the – rassistic – society as a whole.
    but noone – who really looks on the matter – can claim that the undemocratically fabricated constitution is a civil one, or even `free´ one. its in fact pre-civil, by immunising the state apparatus against any elected body. (much more than the constitution of 2012 that, too, installed great impunities for the military)
    Although the unfair and ridiculous character of the election and its result – 95 % – is not a secret, its widely ignored by the mainstraem media, because the new/ old tyrants are OUR TYRANTS. and so we are reading: `Egypt´ said yes to the constitution.
    but if we begin to look deeper on the character of this perspective and this perception, we find that it is a rassistic one. and a perspective that is full of a blind and unreflected islamophobia.
    behind the rural – urban conflict you are mentioning there is a class conflict, and both are hidden or transformed or clothed in a religious one, or a conflict between so-called `secularists´ and so-called `islamists´. but this is the surface.
    you are mentioning that a `gallup poll´ in 2012 and in 2013 showed that the support for muslim brotherhood fell to 19 percent in june 2013. dear juan cole, its not possible that you seriously think that gallup is able to conduct a profund survey in egypt that is reliable, valid or representativ. such a survey – probably conducted from the us via telephone – neither is reliable, nor valid, nor representativ. its, in contrary, led and inspired by political interests, not by objectivity. a more scientific survey on the attitudes of egyptians of various walks of life in june and july 2013 you can find here: link to
    okay, its late now here in my country and I m tired.
    I wish you the best

    stefan schmitt

Comments are closed.