Middle East

Egypt's struggle to motivate the 'sofa party'

Election worker in Cairo, 14 January Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Egypt does not appear immune from the voter apathy in more mature democracies

Any politician planning an election campaign or a referendum in Egypt has to keep an eye on the mood of the "sofa party".

The party doesn't have a leader of course - or any particular ideology - it's just that a large proportion of the Egyptian population is inclined to spurn even the most historic of democratic opportunities in favour of sitting comfortably at home.

The allure of the sofa helps to explain in part why, when Egyptians were offered the first chance in their history to freely elect a president in 2012, only one in two of them voted.

It's true that the choice of candidates back then was also regarded as uninspiring but there's no doubt that the absence of a culture of democracy after decades of autocratic rule played a part too.

When the Islamist President Mohammed Morsi held his own constitutional referendum a few months later, only a third of the electorate took part.

Here too there were other factors - including a boycott movement organised by secular Egyptians who were worried that the document too obviously bore the fingerprints of Mr Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood.

But the fact remained that a substantial majority didn't turn out - suggesting the beginnings of a pattern in which Egypt exhibits the same problem of voter participation that we sometimes associate with more mature democracies.

Image copyright AP
Image caption A lot of guards, but not always so many voters

That's one factor to bear in mind when assessing the 37% or so turnout - as carried in the state-owned al-Ahram newspaper - for the latest constitutional referendum.

And there was a Muslim Brotherhood boycott this time around - payback for the secularists' use of the same tactic.

The interim government can say that it has beaten its Islamist predecessor in a contest for constitutional legitimacy, although not by as much as it had hoped.

Given those mutual boycotts, it could be argued that over the course of the past two referendums, 70% of Egyptians have now given their verdict on rival visions of their constitutional future. They just didn't do it in the same poll.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Army chief Gen Sisi may have hoped for a higher turnout - but expect a presidential bid soon

But even seen against the 50% turnout for the presidential vote, the 37% figure is not exactly resounding. The interim government will have to hope it's seen as credible, that it's at least respectable given the emerging tradition of low turnouts.

And of course there is the issue of "constitution fatigue" - this is the third draft basic law put to Egyptians in the past three years including the Islamist version and a temporary document put forward by the Army High Command back in 2011.

On the other hand the military-backed interim government staged a shamelessly partisan and utterly relentless campaign for a Yes vote.

The resources of state television were marshalled to remind voters of their patriotic duty - Yes banners were hung from what seemed like every other lamp-post and people venturing out with No posters found themselves under arrest.

So the generals must have been hoping for rather more than 40% - one election official speaking anonymously after the polls closed was talking about a figure of 55%, but that turns out to have been wishful thinking.

Still Egypt has a new constitution and the army will certainly take the view that the turnout is high enough to make it legitimate if not quite as high as it might have liked.

It's an interesting document too, even if it's something of a tough read for outsiders.

It covers some of the basic ground you'd expect, acknowledging the special position of Islam while guaranteeing the rights of the substantial Coptic Christian minority.

And it covers a broad spectrum of rights - including jobs, educational and entertainment opportunities for dwarfs and people with disabilities.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Boys in Minya signal support for the Muslim Brotherhood. It boycotted the vote

But it also enshrines the extraordinary rights of the Egyptian army, including the power to put civilians on trial in a military court, to shield its budget from the impertinent scrutiny of politicians and even to appoint the defence minister.

No wonder the generals were so keen.

And no general was keener than Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the head of the army whose rise from total obscurity now seems certain to be crowned with a successful run for the presidency sometime soon.

Gen Sisi couches his ambitions in the gentlest of terms, merely saying that if the people wish him to run then he would not turn his back on their will.

Modest he may be, but I've seen formidable-looking elderly women with tears running down their faces as they kissed the photographs of him they clutched in the polling station queues. I wouldn't bet against him.

When the time comes to run of course the general will once again face the difficult task of getting the vote out in Egypt.

Then we'll see once again how he fares with his attempts to motivate the sofa party.

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