In the months preceding the United States’ most recent presidential election, commentators, analysts, and other agents of the mainstream media argued about America’s political-geographic climate, swing states, campaign trails, and whether the final draw lay in Ohio, Florida, or Virginia. Generally, politicians in the West plan campaigns strategically, deciding how to use their resources to divide and conquer America’s politically diverse map.
Despite the fact that on December 15th and 22nd 2012, the majority of Egyptians who voted said “yes” to constitutional amendments, the governorate and capital city of Cairo voted “no.” Are these conversations on the geography of politics moving to the Middle-East?
To call contemporary Egypt a mixed bag of ideology would be an understatement. Over the Arab Republic’s short decades of existence since the last revolution of 1952, the people of Egypt have faced secular- socialism, economic liberalism, and authoritarianism- and although we may have begun the process of transition to an Islamic democracy, remnants of support for these systems persist on the political spectrum. On another level, the nation’s roughly 10 million Christians comprise 15% of the total population and seek empowerment from a religiously oppressive majority.
The constitutional referendum of 2012 addressed sociopolitical issues like the strength of parliament and judicial procedures. Amongst the more controversial provisions were the transferring of discretionary powers of detention and trial to military generals, the absence of clauses that explicitly protect freedom of religion and freedom of expression, the removal of a ban on military trials for civilians, and the statement that “the Islamic Shari’a will be the primary source of legislature.”
The 27 governorates of Egypt that voted on the referendum are dispersed geographically, but are not based on population or urban density. The first important observation: only in three governorates did the majority of voters mark “no.” These were Cairo, Gharbia, and Monufia. In the rest of the governorates, including Alexandria (a city commonly recognized as hotbed of both Salafi Muslims and Copts), the majority or voters voted “yes.”
But even in Cairo, where voters struck down the referendum, the tally was very close- 56.8% “no” to 43.2% “yes.” And the other “no” provinces of Gharbia and Monufia were even closer, at “no” votes of 52.2% and 51.1% respectively.
The next layer of observation: the governorates that voted “yes” in high percentages were the most rural in Egypt. In Matruh, Faiyum, and New Valley, voters approved of the referendum by 91.7%, 89.5%, and 87.3%. With the exception of Luxor and Aswan, Egypt’s top 10 biggest cities found themselves amongst the more evenly divided governorates. The rural went “yes” and the urban went more evenly and sometimes “no.”
And despite these divisions between governorates, which aren’t assembled by population or any other visible pattern, there appears one common thread: the voter turnout is almost exactly consistent across all the governorates, hovering at around 32%.
So what gives? Why are the cities voting more evenly than the country, and why are so few people voting? One possible explanation for the former relates back to our US analogy- are the rural areas and Upper Egypt simply the Bible Belts of Egypt? The more religiously zealous are more likely to vote yes, and in this respect rural areas with poor education and resources may make more religiously “instinctive” decisions. Another explanation could be that in cities, people are more exposed to diverse ideologies and opinions, and thus make more reasoned judgments.
But even religious appeal has its limitations. The largest concentrations of Coptic Christians in Egypt are found not only in Cairo but also in Alexandria and Upper Egypt (or the southern Nile), both areas that voted “yes” on the amendments. So even if Christians voted “no,” it didn’t show in numbers outside Cairo.
It thus shows that socioeconomic factors, with respect to geographic politics, are beginning to play a major role. The Brotherhood paid well on financial support through food donations in poor areas as a way to “buy votes” and establish their campaign in addition to the religiously pervasive zeal.
As for the rampantly low participation, the issue is more macro. With a country of 80 million people, only 51 million are eligible to vote. How does the government address issues like the fact that national illiteracy is 30%, and amongst women is almost 41%? The less educated and rural Egyptians have illiteracy rates way higher, and they are non-coincidentally where the Islamic parties have their tightest grasp.
But what we might learn most from this referendum is that through the Brotherhood’s victory, Cairo still voted no. It’s becoming apparent that Morsi needs to strike a balance between upholding the principles of democracy he claims to champion, and keep his popularity high in a nation where the people of Tahrir are still truly empowered.