Cairo -- Polling places are packed today as Egyptians are casting their votes to ratify six amendments to the country’s constitution in what may be Egypt’s freest and fairest election ever. Because the military is running the show, penalties are stiff for voter fraud, and very few seem tempted to risk a second trip to the ballot box more than once in exchange for a 2-5 year prison sentence. Moreover, the fact that Egyptians are eager to display their sense of civic responsibility means that the lines are long and no one wants to wait to vote upwards of an hour twice.
Some preliminary exit polls suggest that “yes” votes are carrying the day, which is certain to please the country’s Islamist factions, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood. Since the Brotherhood is Egypt’s most organized political outfit, they stand to benefit most from a quick progression to the next stage of Egypt’s political process, parliamentary elections, where they could pick up 30% of the seats. The military, eager to get out of the spotlight, also seeks “yes” on the referendum, with the revolution’s other factions seeking a “no,” in order to refer the constitution to another, still undecided, procedure, which will give them more time to prepare for parliamentary elections.
Just recently another outfit tossed its hat into the “no” camp, the Coptic clergy, whose Bishop Rofeaal of Cairo told his co-religionists, all of them, to vote against the referendum. This was a mistake, which may turn out to have serious consequences for the Coptic community, believed to constitute 10% of the Egyptian population.
While the Copts’ participation in the revolution was much played up in Egyptian and Western media in order to underline the image of a unified Egypt, in reality much of the community was scared that the upheaval would empower radical Muslim factions that have targeted for decades the country’s Christians. And indeed, even during the course of the demonstrations there were several attacks on the Coptic community. Accordingly, even if the Copts were not entirely behind the revolution, they could have been expected to vote largely “no” on their own, registering it as a vote against the Muslim Brotherhood. However, the church’s instructions to vote “no” as a bloc emphasizes the sectarian divisions—at the expense not of the Sunni majority, but the Christian minority.
That the Christians are voting en masse will hardly affect the Muslim Brotherhood’s attitude toward their non-Muslim countrymen, and certainly not the opinions of more radical Salafist groups that have made war on the Copts. But it will leave other voters with the distinct, and accurate, impression that the Copts have voted not as Egyptians, but rather as a sect with its own set of interests.
Highlighting your minority status is the kind of political immaturity that is to be expected from a community that was accustomed to more or less aligning its interests with those of a powerful Arab regime. But this is a different political atmosphere, and one in which the Copts may have just forfeited significant breathing room. For not only have they explicitly taken sides against the Muslim Brotherhood, but they have also lined up against the army. No matter who becomes the next president of Egypt, the regime’s base is the military. Had the church issued token directions to vote “yes,” even knowing its members would vote “no,” it might have earned some good will from the army. Instead, regardless of how the referendum turns out, the Coptic community will have less than no leverage with the military; and if the amendments pass it will have to be satisfied with the consolation of throwing its weight behind a loser.
If the Copts’ dismal political sense is any clue, it doesn’t matter if Egypt moves on to parliamentary elections in the fall or in two autumns from now, because it will take years, not months, for any political groupings to mount a challenge to the Muslim Brotherhood.