Egypt’s voter turnout and the absence of consistent facts
Egyptians will go to the ballot box again in the future – and they needed this electoral process to be as professional as humanly possible
When one observes Egyptian politics, it’s increasingly rare to find a single event that has an agreed upon narrative. Everything seems to be contested – there is no longer even the pretence of a single history. The political polarization of the country has made even the smallest incident subject to wildly different accounts – not interpretations, but actual different facts entirely. The recent presidential elections/coronation/wedding/not-sure-what-to-call-it is no exception. Indeed, it is something of a colourful elaboration.
Let us start with the two radically different ends of the spectrum. On the one hand, we have the preliminary Egyptian state figures for the numbers involved in the elections. According to the Presidential Elections Commission (PEC), turnout stood at approximately 46.8% of the population. Conversely, we have the supporters of the former president, Mohammed Mursi, arguing turnout figures anywhere between 7.5% and 11.8% - depending on whom you asked.
Those numbers are being touted as ‘facts’ – indisputable, albeit ‘facts’ that can lend themselves to a broad variety of interpretations. It’s normal to argue about what certain facts mean – but in Egypt, the very facts of the matter are in dispute.
Facts ought not to be a subject of dispute – but in Egypt, and among those out of Egypt who have a vested political interest in what these numbers actually are, that’s exactly what they are. For supporters of the yet-to-be-constructed Egyptian regime, 46.8% is a triumph for the military imposed roadmap that began on July 3rd, 2013. It means, as far as they are concerned, a revalidation of Mursi’s removal, because it shows a substantial portion of the population engaged in the second step of the roadmap. For those that oppose the roadmap, particularly those that seek the reinstatement of Mohammad Mursi, the lower numbers are proof to the contrary – that people en masse actively boycotted the election, and thus the legitimacy of the roadmap itself is in question.
What about the constitutional referendum?
Now, it is not clear that either of these arguments would actually hold water, even if the facts were not in question. After all, if turnout was 5%, or 50%, it does not necessarily say ‘we, the Egyptians, accept/reject the roadmap’. A low turnout could be the result of voter apathy, hot weather, lack of competition, disillusionment with politics at large, and any number of reasons. A high turnout relates to this election itself – not necessarily the roadmap itself – otherwise, why was this discussion around turnout and legitimacy not raised during the constitutional referendum earlier this year?
Egyptians will go to the ballot box again in the future – and they needed this electoral process to be as professional as humanly possibleH.A. Hellyer
But it does not matter how one interprets the facts – because the facts themselves are not agreed upon. There is no arbiter of the facts that everyone consents to. For opponents of the Egyptian authorities, the PEC is not a neutral referee, and thus cannot be relied upon. For those supporting the roadmap, it is. And both groups deploy anecdotal experience to support their claims.
The disputes abound. Egyptians over the past few days, in articles, on television stations, social media and elsewhere, have deployed various arguments to support their claims. Comparisons to the constitutional referendum earlier this year, and that of 2012; observations of polling stations in their neighbourhoods this election, contrasting with other elections; and so forth. That sort of anecdotal evidence, of course, is hardly useful – whether to describe high turnout or low turnout. The numbers of polling stations vary according to the election, which will impact the size of the queues. Voter lists themselves will average tremendously – you could have a list of 1000 people in one area, and a list of 6000 somewhere else. The constitutional referendum of 2012, for example, which everyone agrees had a fairly low turnout, still had long queues in many areas. Anecdotes are hardly the way to judge turnout – but that’s what both sides in Egypt will do.
Surveys and exit polls
Moving beyond anecdotes, some will look at ‘surveys’. I write that in quotation marks, because I’m not really sure what to call them. When a survey is reported by a group called ‘Al-Marsad’, for example, that insists turnout is 11%, one has to wonder – where does the claim come from? ‘Al-Marsad’, according to its website, is a human rights organisation – but when I contacted representatives of the major human rights organisations in Egypt (who have been critical of all the authorities of the past four years, and can’t be portrayed as pro-government at any point), none of them had a clue who ‘Al-Marsad’ was. That didn’t stop some writers, unfortunately, using ‘Al-Marsad’ as a reference – because it fits the narrative.
Others used exit polls to bolster their claims, indicating a huge turnout. But exit polls are remarkably difficult. My former academic home and alma mater, Warwick University, has helpfully outlined the challenges of exit polls in the UK. We have extremely well developed mechanisms for such exercises, and a fairly mature party political system – and even in Britain, we have difficulties. In a country like Egypt, exit polls are going to be even more perplexing – but it didn’t stop people from uncritically deploying their findings where useful. Because, after all, it fits their narrative.
All of that is just purely on turnout figures – let alone the more outrageous claims regarding the demographics of the figures. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party promoted one poll, carried out by the ‘Takamol’ group, which insisted that 48% of voters were… Christians. Such ‘findings’ aren’t simply factually absurd – they’re deeply sectarian, as is the promotion of them. (By the way – the ‘Takamol’ group was the same source for the figure of 7.5% turnout.)
Where does that leave us? Well, there are actually a few facts we can rely on – at least that relate to the suspected politicisation of this entire electoral exercise. The first one is that the Egyptian authorities pretty much panicked. The second day of voting was abruptly declared a national holiday; fines for not voting were threatened; and highly unusually, a third day of voting was announced, without prior warning. If those moves are not indicative of an authority that is overwhelmingly concerned about low turnout in the early part of the voting cycle, I’m not sure what is.
The certainty of that, however, is rather bitter sweet – because the moves themselves inspired incredibly uncertainty about everything else. In carrying out those measures, particularly the extension of the final day, the Egyptian state, which claimed to be neutral about the process, gave every indication that the process was politicised. To the point where even if, indeed, the turnout figures the state claims are correct, there will be many that simply disbelieve them, because of those actions taken.
There must be a way to build consistent facts for Egyptians – not consistent interpretations, but consistent facts. Differing interpretations are normal – but if such empirical facts are disputed, Egyptians will forever live in what are essentially different realities. But it seems that far too many on both sides want precisely that – they want to live in two different countries.
The election was a foregone conclusion. No one really doubted that Sisi would be Egypt’s new president – even if the election had been entirely fair and free, it’s hard to imagine anyone else being able to mount a sufficient challenge against him at this particular moment in Egyptian history. Far more important than that, however, was the process itself. Egyptians will go to the ballot box again in the future – and they needed this electoral process to be as professional as humanly possible, in order to assure confidence in the institutions that administer that vote. If they have even less confidence than they did before, that’s not their fault, but that of the state.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.
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