Friday, April 08, 2011

A Closer Look at the Referendum Results: District by District

            The hotly contested referendum of March 19 has passed into history and left hardly a trace.  Given the intense emotions evoked by the partisans of voting “yes” and “no” as well as the patience and energy with which millions of Egyptians lined up to vote this is a bit surprising but things in Egypt continue to move at a remarkably rapid pace. One common assertion in the form of a joke is that the life of a political figure here is now one week.  That's how long it takes for a previously little known figure to reach public prominence and then disappear again.

    The decision by the army to transform, without any public discussion whatsoever, the referendum on amending the constitution into a decision to replace the 1971 constitution with a new “constitutional declaration” effectively turned the referendum into what now appears like a trial of democratic procedures rather than like an undertaking of democratic power.  That said, it is also important not to underestimate the impact of the trial.  Many people spent quite a bit of time and energy thinking deeply about the implications of the proposed amendments and drawing conclusions not only about a text but about their own aspirations and concerns for Egypt’s future.  To the degree that democracy is about deliberation, many people I know deliberated privately long and hard.  What many people also felt was that the process, unfortunately, occurred in such a way as to limit public deliberation.  Thus some Egyptians feel they lost a chance not only to clarify the issues at stake but also to engage in a new kind of dialogue about the country’s future which would replace the older structures of debate as a one-sided delivery of opinion rather than a deliberative weighing.  

As I have pointed out in a previous entry it is not so clear that the armed forces could have attracted such a large “yes” vote for the new constitution they wrote rather than for what were presented as a limited number of amendments.  And they have now, certainly, written themselves into the constitution as well as, potentially, out of it.

            Remarkably little has been written about the election results other than the aggregate total of 77.3 % yes votes and 22.7% no votes.  The few quick analysis I’ve seen using available statistics at the governorate (muhafazah) level suggest that voting “no” was generally associated with higher education and higher incomes (and, of course, these are usually correlated with each other).  Many observers also believe, probably with good reason, that Christians were provided a fairly solid “no” bloc and that those Muslims who believed that a no vote jeopardized article 2 of the constitution (which makes Islam the religion of state) probably constituted a fairly solid “yes” bloc.  On balance keen observers of Egyptian politics I’ve talked to also believe that the “no” vote represented a more coherent political choice in favor of a secular as well as democratic state.  These voters, who will form the basis of a broadly-defined liberal-left in future Egyptian electoral politics, were concerned both about the return of the 1971 constitution and that the process of choosing a constituent assembly would enable a state more concerned with religion than the one that has now passed into history.  For better or worse many of these voters do not wish to allow (for a variety of reasons) a parliament with a Muslim Brother majority to choose the body that will write Egypt’s next constitution.

            Leaving aside, for now, how accurate these fears are and what the parliamentary elections now scheduled for September will bring it is worth considering what else we might learn from the election results.  For the moment we can only make some guesses largely because the information needed to understand the results better is unavailable for the moment (and some of it is not available at all).  Since I will be making a few assertions, albeit very tentative ones, it’s necessary at the outset to point out that I’m on somewhat shaky ground.   The Egyptian government has released data about the referendum at the level of the electoral district within the governorates.  Unfortunately I have yet to discover any maps of the electoral districts so the rough boundaries (let alone the exact ones) are unknown.  This is especially problematic in cases where an electoral district has the same name as a well-known community but may or may not contain it.  Thus in the Giza governorate there is an Imbaba electoral district.  Imbaba is also the name of an impoverished community which in the 1980s was a stronghold of Islamist  groups against which the state used armed force in 1992 and which, according to Tony Shadid writing in the New York Times on February 15, 2011, is now a very different place: equally religious in its own way perhaps but far from Islamist.  As far as I can tell the Imbaba district and the Imbaba neighborhood are by no means identical (at least according to the Arabic Wikipedia).  Even if they were identical boundaries in 2010 of election districts are re-drawn before every election so they may have mappe.d quite different areas in the past and may again in the future.  And although census data exists I have no access to it and it doesn’t include several important variables such as religious affiliation.

            Looking below the governorate level, even if only superficially, is nevertheless worth doing and should it be possible to get more demographic data we would be able to learn some important things.  One of the most important things, and of some practical importance, is how strongly the core vote for the liberal left (which I am broadly defining as the “no” vote in the referendum) is geographically concentrated.  And this we already can get some idea from simply by looking at the district level results.

            Let me give some examples of looking at the referendum results on the district level rather than the provincial level.  One analysis suggests that Gharbiyah province had more “no” votes (about 22%) than would be a expected for a rural province because the important textile center of Mahallah al-Kubra is there.  This is certainly intuitively plausible especially given the very intense and now nearly legendary conflicts that occurred there in 2006 between workers on the one side and the company management and the state on the other.   Mahallah has long been a symbol of Egyptian industrialization and of class conflict and thus the idea that contributed to a significantly large “no” vote is quite plausible.  A look at the election district results does show a strong “no” vote in Mahallah—32% and 35% for the two presumably most urban districts in Mahallah.  Nevertheless Mahallah did not contribute either the largest number or the largest proportion of “no” votes in the province.  The city of Tanta did.  Like Mahallah, Tanta also has a textile industry but it also has a university, is the Metropolitan seat of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and is the site of a famous shrine-mosque at which an annual festival is held (the Mulid of Ahmad al-Badawi).  More people voted in the two urban districts of Tanta than in Mahallah and the respective “no” margins were larger: 36% and 40%. 

            Cairenes were far more likely to vote “no” than any other large province: overall 39.5% of the voters voted against the amendments .  It is not particularly surprising that what might be thought of as the “silk-stocking” district of Qasr al-Nil which includes downtown and the relatively elite island of Zamalek returned something like 68% no.   It appears to be a small district and only about 20,000 votes were cast.  In Sayyida Zeinab district, however, which has a far more economically modest population and which has been described as a stronghold of former National Democratic party leader (and speaker of the parliament), Fathi Surour, 36.7% of the nearly 60,000 voters said “no.” Again, this matters, since the district is widely held to have been the source of the thugs who attacked demonstrators (especially Christians) in early March. In Nuzha, a rather disparate district in both religious and economic terms, almost 64% of slightly more than 113,500 votes said “no.”  The populous university district of Ain Shams and the more working-class district of Basatin also showed significant no votes (with 41% and 35% no in totals nearing 160,000 and 120,000 respectively).  

            Giza, on the western bank across the Nile from Cairo and widely thought of as simply a part of the greater conurbation of Cairo, did not vote no to quite the same degree.  Nearly 32% of Gizans voted no, but here again the distribution of votes differed rather widely geographically.  Again, as one might expect the more upper-class areas of Agouza and Dokki voted strongly no.  Imbaba and Bulaq Dakrur which have been thought of as strongholds of religious sentiment (and where over 165,000 voted in each district) returned 35% and 28% no votes respectively.  Given my earlier caveats I would not make too much of any of this.  The Imbaba election district may or may not be coextensive with the Imbaba neighborhood that Tony Shadid visited, but if it is then the change is quite remarkable from 25 years ago.  Bulaq Dakrur is often referred to as a district in which the Muslim Brothers draw significant strength.  This may well be the case just as it may be the case that there is a larger Christian population in the area than most people realize or perhaps more educated or wealthier people.  Or perhaps the effect of living in Cairo is, generally, to shift opinions in the direction of being more cosmopolitan which is also quite plausible.  For the moment we don't know but it is clear that greater Cairo is itself heterogeneous and surprising and that there is much more to be learned even about something as seemingly straightforward as the referendum results.

            Looking beneath the governorate level totals to the votes at the level of the electoral districts suggests significant variation within governorates.  Without the relevant demographic data and perhaps some associated survey research we simply won’t know.  It would be useful not only to know the relative numbers of Christians in many locales but it would also be useful to have some sense of the range of attitudes both Christians and Muslims have toward their own faiths and to each other.  These coupled with socio-economic data would allow the elections to become not only a tool for self-rule but also for collective self-understanding.  Not perhaps a primary tool and certainly not one to replace more reflective forms but a useful one nevertheless.

            Lastly as Egyptians consider the electoral system to come they may wish to reflect on the variations within as well as between provinces.  Generally speaking the secular and left-liberal forces seem inclined to favor proportional representation and party lists.  It is not yet clear to me what either the Muslim Brothers or what remains of the NDP prefers.  Many both inside and outside Egypt seem to think that support for the Muslim Brothers is both wide and deep.  That is, it is more or less evenly spread across the country and may well amount to a majority.  Thus the MB can attempt to be reassuring by arguing that they will not contest more than a third of the seats in the next parliamentary elections.  Although they are evidently now either somewhat less concerned with reassuring those who don't agree with them or have a sense that their chances of winning are better than they previously thought.  They are now considering contesting 49% of the parliamentary seats.   If you think that the “yes” vote represents the potential strength of the Muslim Brothers then this is a plausible scenario.

            The problem with the “yes” vote however is that it seems to have been made up of even more heterogeneous political outlooks than the no vote.  Despite the claim by some extreme Islamist leaders that they had won the “battle of the ballot boxes” and that those who didn’t like it could leave for Canada, it would be a mistake to take this claim at face value. There is no doubt that many of those who voted “yes” feared a new constitution would abolish the role of Islam as the religion of state which was enshrined in Article 2.  There is also no doubt that many Muslims voted “yes” simply because this was the choice posed by the Muslim Brothers.  However, many people voted yes because they hoped it would lead to a return to stability and especially renewal of the economy as soon as possible.  Others voted yes because they would like to get the army out of power as rapidly as possible.  Still others may have voted yes because that was what the Armed Forces clearly wanted and they feel grateful to the Army.  The point is not to deny that a significant portion of the yes vote was based in religion (as, after all, was a portion of the “no” vote).  The point is what kinds of electoral coalitions are possible going forward.  It seems more plausible to most observers to believe that the “no” political forces can detach some of the “yes” voters than the reverse.  And indeed some observers note that the Brotherhood has not done anywhere near as well in recent free elections for student governments as had been predicted.  Perhaps their most stunning defeat came at the University of Minya in Upper Egypt where they won no seats at all in the recent elections. And of course nearly 60% of Egyptians didn't vote and they clearly were not mobilized by either the Muslim Brothers or any other political force.  Whether they will vote under other circumstances is, again, something of which we are ignorant.

            Beyond the issue of political forces also lies a question of choosing forms of representation which will be indirectly on the next ballot since the next parliament is supposed to choose a constituent assembly to write a constitution.  Proportional representation is, in the abstract, more democratic in that it reflects the range of political preferences more accurately than representative district elections (whether single or multi-member).  PR, it seems to me, also implies that one thinks of voters as primarily ideological and individual agents whose preferences are relatively well captured in a party program.  It seems to me that it largely ignores other dimensions of human relationships.  District elections, on the other hand, clearly downplay the role of political affiliation and ensures that a range of political affiliations and positions are submerged.  This is, as far as American political science goes, its great merit.  But it also seems to view voters as primarily members of a single community bound together by propinquity in some sense.   Choosing between these two systems is therefore in part a pragmatic question but it also, in part, requires people to choose between some rather different ideas about the nature of political participation, community and human identity.

     Parties whose support is diffuse are said to benefit from PR; parties whose support is geographically well-defined from districts.  As Egyptians and especially Egyptian political activists and would-be party leaders ponder not only the substantive policy possibilities for the future but the means of carrying them out as new elections are held and a new constitution is written they have a crucial choice to make.  Thinking about the referendum results on the ground might be useful part of the discussion especially for people who know far more about the geography of everyday Egyptian politics and geography than I do.

No comments: