FAYOUM, Egypt – When election-time rolls around, this impoverished province of farmlands south of Cairo has proven one of the most die-hard bastions of support for Islamists in Egypt, producing lopsided victories for the Muslim Brotherhood and its ultraconservative allies.
Last weekend's referendum that approved Egypt's Islamist-backed constitution was no exception. According to final results released Tuesday, nearly 90 percent of voters in Fayoum backed the charter, the second highest margin among the country's 27 provinces, mirroring the levels Islamists received here in other votes since the fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago.
But even here, dissident voices creep in. Poverty-stricken farmers, disgruntled youth and even some of the most conservative Islamists show frustration with the Brotherhood less than six months since Islamist President Mohammed Morsi came to power.
The opposition is hoping to build on such discontent as it aims for a stronger showing in upcoming parliamentary elections.
The Brotherhood "burned their bridges quickly," said Ramadan Khairallah, a teacher in the village of Mandara who voted for Morsi in the summer but voted "no" in the referendum.
He said the Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails and which is his core political backer, used to distribute cooking gas among Fayoum residents, but that isn't enough anymore to ensure people's support. Among some resentment has grown over what they see as the Brotherhood's bullying way in power or the lack of change since Morsi was inaugurated in June as Egypt's first freely elected president.
"They want to monopolize power and take everything for themselves. But people don't accept them like before," he said.
The referendum results show the strength of the Brotherhood and other Islamists — and their limits. The constitution passed by some 64 percent nationwide. But turnout was a meager 33 percent. Islamists were unable to expand their base, rallying fewer voters than in last summer's presidential vote. In Fayoum, a province with 1.6 million voters, around 485,000 people voted "yes" on the constitution, down from the 590,000 who voted for Morsi.
If Islamists could only bring out their base, the opposition proved even less able to rouse the discontented — or those confused or apathetic about the charter — to a "no" vote, showing how far it has to go to connect with the public ahead of parliament elections expected within several months. Since Mubarak's ouster, liberal and secular politicians have made little headway in building grassroots support or organizations anywhere close to the Brotherhood's election machine.
In the Fayoum village of Senarow, farmer Mohsen Moufreh echoed often-heard reasons why so many back the Brotherhood.
"I trust them," he said on voting day. "They are good people, they believe in God's justice ... Their charity distributes meat during holidays and if my kid gets sick, they are the ones who help."
The 42-year-old, who has five children and makes the equivalent of about $4 a day, said he didn't read the constitution but voted for it because he trusts the Brotherhood when they say it is the way to stability and a better life.
Fayoum, a fertile oasis just off the Nile River, was once a breeding ground for radical Islamic jihadists who battled Mubarak's rule during 1990s. Since then it has been an active center for the Brotherhood, the ultraconservative Salafis and for former militants who foreswore violence and created political parties after Mubarak's fall. It has also one of Egypt's poorest provinces. People have been falling into poverty here faster than almost anywhere in the country, with the percentage of people earning less than $1 a day rising to 41 percent from 29 percent in 2009, according to government statistics released last month.
During voting Saturday, the Islamists' organizing was on display.
Cars with loudspeakers toured villages, calling on people to vote "yes." Banners with pictures of Egypt's most influential ultraconservative clerics proclaimed, "They say yes to the constitution" and "Islam is the solution." Women cloaked in black with veils that left only their eyes showing were brought in groups from their homes in pick-up trucks to polling stations. There, teams of men with the beards of conservative Muslims passed out cards with blue circles, to ensure illiterate voters knew which circle to check on the ballot — blue for "yes," brown for "no."
Still, voices of discontent were heard. Some are bitter over an enduring economic crisis that hits farmers hard. Others became more critical watching the debates in Cairo that came to their villages though the numerous liberal-minded TV talk shows. Some religious conservatives said they have grown to see the Brotherhood as acting more out of hunger for power than "for the sake of God."
The tempers were high, with Brotherhood members angrily accusing opponents of being "feloul" — remnants of Mubarak's regime — or of having their minds poisoned by liberal media.
Outside a polling station in the village of Sheikh Fadl, one resident complained about Islamists to an Associated Press journalist.
"Look no one in this village read the constitution ... I can read and write, but I don't understand the constitution and I couldn't decide whether to say or no," Said Abdel-Moneim, a driver, said.
"But here the Brotherhood knocks doors and brings people out," he said, "and if someone says no, he gets beaten up."
A Brotherhood member who overheard him protested — and the two quickly fell into a fistfight, kicking each other and throwing punches.
An old man in white robe and scarf around his head yelled, "All this is the account of the people the simple people. The farmer is ignored."
"The prices are high for fertilizers. The (land) costs tripled and revenues dropped," he shouted, saying he was furious at the Brotherhood — but also adding a criticism of the opposition. "The educated and the elite are doing nothing but protests ... people here are tired and sick."
Islam Abdullah, a young voter, complained people follow whatever choice well-known clerics bless.
"People here believe the religious scholars. Most of the people didn't know what to say until Mohammed Hassan came out and said yes. It was over," he said, referring to a prominent Salafi cleric.
He was interrupted by a passing Brotherhood member. "This is not true. Don't talk about things you don't know," he yelled — and another fistfight broke out.
"Everyone who said no is a feloul," said another Brotherhood member near the polls, Sayed Zedan.
In nearby Mandara, a man with the long beard of an ultraconservative complained about the Brotherhood as he watched voters arriving in minibuses.
"We have tried the Muslim Brotherhood in every possible way and they never lived up to their promise," said Mohammed Ali, a history teacher who belongs to the political party of the Gamaa Islamiya, once a violent extremist group.
"They know how to strike the right tone. They tell people that Christians don't want the constitution because they are against Shariah and that Muslims must defend it," he said. "People tend to believe those in power."