Egypt Vote Results Shows Islamists' Rising Sway
By MATT BRADLEY Wall Street Journal 3/21/2011
CAIRO—Egyptians' embrace of a set of proposed constitutional amendments in this weekend's referendum is the clearest sign yet that leadership of the country's revolution may be passing from youthful activists to Islamist religious leaders, according to analysts.
Electoral officials said 77% of Egyptians voted to accept a set of proposed amendments to Egypt's constitution that will, among other changes, limit the presidency to two four-year terms and ease restrictions on independent political participation, according to results announced Sunday.
The proposed changes were opposed by protest leaders and by presidential front-runners Mohammed El Baradei and Amr Moussa. Both men urged Egyptians to reject the amendments, written by lawyers and judges nominated by Egypt's military. Protest leaders and opposition politicians instead pushed for an entirely new constitution that would limit expansive presidential powers.
The results from Saturday's referendum signal a shift in Egypt's continuing revolution: The protest leaders, once celebrated as heroes and martyrs, are no longer the leading voice in Egypt's transition to democracy.
In their place are popular religious leaders, whose strong backing of the amendments held sway. These leaders see approval of the amendments as an avenue to political power and a means of preserving the country's Islamic identity. With their influence in what appeared to be Egypt's first free and fair election, these political playmakers show how they are positioned to help define Egypt's democratic future.
The powerful Muslim Brotherhood, a once-illegal Islamist political group, was joined in supporting the amendments by leaders of the Salafi Islamist movement—which follows the ultra-conservative brand of Islam widely practiced in Saudi Arabia—and residual elements of the former ruling National Democratic Party, or NDP.
Opponents of the amendments, which included many in the youth movement, said the Muslim Brotherhood allied with the NDP as part of a cynical power grab: The approval of the amendments has set the stage for parliamentary elections this summer, for which only the Brotherhood and the NDP have the organizational structures to compete.
Posters and leaflets distributed throughout the country said that voting "yes" on the 10 amendments—not one of which made any mention of religion—was a spiritual obligation. Some of the posters bore the Muslim Brotherhood name, but the group denied they put them up and said in general it hadn't used religious rhetoric to promote the amendments.
Prominent Salafi clerics openly championed the amendments, telling satellite television audiences that a "no" result would lead to the drafting of a new constitution that might exclude a controversial article in Egypt's existing constitution that embraces Sharia, or Islamic, law as the root of all legislation in the Egyptian parliament.
The nature of the campaign led some Egyptians to describe their "yes" votes as a religious obligation.
"This is a nightmare for intellectual Egyptians," said Nabil Abdel Fattah, a political analyst for the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a government-funded think tank based in Cairo.
"All the youth accepted the results of the referendum as a form of democracy. But at the same time, they felt very deceived by the dangerous role the religious groups played against them," Mr. Abdel Fattah said. "They felt that their revolution is being aborted and there is a huge, huge threat to the unity of the country from using religious campaigns."
Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church—whose adherents account for about 10% of the country's 80 million people—came out against the amendments, which they said amounted to an Islamist power-play.
The youth-led campaign against the amendments revealed the limits of the protest leaders' mass appeal among Egypt's largely impoverished, under-educated population.
For weeks after Mr. Mubarak stepped down on Feb. 11, protesters remained in Tahrir Square, where they agitated for concession after concession from Egypt's new military leaders. Among their successes were the dissolution of the country's hated State Security services and the ouster of Mubarak loyalists from the country's cabinet.
As the protests continued well past Mr. Mubarak's resignation, most Egyptians yearned for a return to normalcy. Egypt's military has yet to lift a nightly curfew that has limited business hours and Egypt's stock market still has not reopened nearly two months after it closed on Jan. 27.
Except for the Brotherhood, which played a pivotal role in the protests, the majority of the demonstrators were secular-minded, well-educated liberals who shared little in common with Egypt's conservative majority.
The "yes" campaigners sought to portray the youthful protest movement as rich kids who could afford to perpetuate the political and economic uncertainty that followed Egypt's revolution.
One activist said that with Mr. Mubarak gone, the Egyptian people have multiple political options beyond the protesters.
"The protest leaders, they aren't as effective as we thought," said Bassem Fathi, one of the youth activists. He said Egyptians rallied behind the protesters because they represented the only alternative to Mr. Mubarak. "Now, Egyptians are having a lot of choices," he said.