In Egypt, why voters won't take 'no' as the answer

By Hani Sabra and Willis Sparks

Thousands of Egyptians are now gathering across their country to chant their denunciations of Egypt's new draft constitution, a document completed by the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly just days ago. Pro-democracy revolutionaries, the young people who sparked the movement that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011, warn that the new constitution will give the military enormous power, fail to force the president to appoint a vice president, and the vague language on freedoms of religion and the press, and protections for the rights of women could actually be used to discriminate.

But when the constitution is put to a popular vote less than two weeks from now, it will pass. Why? Because its authors (the Muslim Brotherhood) and their sometime political partners (the military), remain the two most powerful groups in the country. Because the Islamists campaigning for it are organized and popular. And because they will argue, as they did in March 2011 during a debate over temporary constitutional amendments, that it is the duty of Muslims to vote for a document that will provide longed-for stability and that reflects the will of a people that elected the Muslim Brothers to power. (Seventy-seven percent of voters approved the 2011 constitutional amendments.)

There is another reason why the draft constitution will pass. The non-Islamist opposition has not made a clear and compelling case to voters that a "no" vote will make Egypt more stable and prosperous. The protesters warn that this constitution does not reflect the aspirations of those who ousted Mubarak to gain "bread, freedom, and social justice." They're right. But they haven't explained to large numbers of voters why a rejection of this document will improve their lives. The Islamists insist that a vote against the constitution is a vote for uncertainty, instability, and continued conflict.

In short, the protesters offer no clear alternative. There is no constitution B. Faced with a choice between yes and no, most Egyptians will choose the path they believe will move things forward toward a restoration of order-even though a new constitution won't really accomplish that. It's not that the Muslim Brotherhood is unbeatable; when Egyptian voters have a choice, Brotherhood candidates sometimes lose. Their man, Mohamed Morsy, is president, but he only drew a quarter of the vote in the first round of a hotly-contested election, and in the runoff, he barely defeated Ahmad Shafik, Mubarak's right hand man. To win that second round, he needed support from millions of non-Islamist voters who chose him because he represented a viable alternative to continuation of the old regime.

And until the young protesters and the broader non-Islamist camp offer an alternative that voters can understand and accept, they will have more defeats ahead. 

Hani Sabra is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Middle East practice. Willis Sparks is an analyst in the firm's Global Macro practice.