CAIRO – For all the self-congratulatory headlines in Egypt's pro-military media, the results of last week's constitutional referendum may have fallen short of the emphatic popular mandate the nation's military chief was looking for before announcing his presidential run.
Moreover, the outcome — nearly everyone who cast a ballot approved the draft constitution, but turnout was low, at less than 39 percent — has put on display the country's enduring divisions six months after the ouster of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi and nearly three years after autocrat Hosni Mubarak was overthrown.
Another worrying aspect is that young Egyptians appear to have stayed away from the polls, probably because of frustration over the lack of real change and anger over the perceived return of Mubarak-era figures, along with such hated practices as police brutality and other heavy-handed tactics by security agencies.
The 98.1 percent "yes" vote cannot be seen as an accurate reflection of public opinion in "a country as big and as complex and divided as Egypt," said Khaled Fahmy, a political analyst who chairs the history department at the American University in Cairo. "This is a very alarming figure. ... Something has gone very wrong."
Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the military chief who led the July 3 coup that removed Morsi, has yet to say outright whether he will seek the land's highest office. His supporters had viewed the Jan. 14-15 referendum on the new constitution as a vote on the general's possible presidential bid.
The relatively low turnout, however, should be reason for concern for the general and his supporters.
While no one is claiming the vote was rigged or fraudulent, it took place amid a climate of intimidation, with a de facto ban on campaigning for a "no" vote and a media frenzy that projected a "yes" vote as the only way out of the country's deadly turmoil and economic and social ills.
Islamists effectively boycotted the two-day vote, honoring a call by Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood to shun the referendum as a sham. The ultraconservative Salafi party Al-Nour, which sided with el-Sissi against Morsi, also appeared to have failed to rally its supporters for a "yes" vote, reducing the turnout. The party won about 25 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections two years ago.
"Even the most optimistic of el-Sissi's supporters admit that the turnout was less than ideal," prominent analyst Nervana Mahmoud wrote in her blog on Sunday. "Despite aggressive campaigning by state and private media as well as top religious figures and political parties, including the Salafi Al-Nour, the overall turnout failed to reach the desired target of 40 percent or above."
However, Mahmoud contends that the Brotherhood's call for a boycott was effective mostly in peripheral regions to the south and west of Cairo, a trend she said confirmed the group's isolation and loss of support in the densely populated urban areas.
The relatively low turnout, according to three senior officials familiar with the thinking of the military's leadership, suggests the emergence of serious cracks in the el-Sissi-led coalition that led the opposition and eventual removal of Morsi last year. The military, they said, is looking into whether its liberal and secular allies as well as the Salafis did not do enough to get out the vote.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media about the military's deliberations, said the military in the meantime is convinced that el-Sissi cannot let down the nearly 20 million Egyptians who voted "yes."
"The military will not stand on the sidelines while the country is divided and facing challenges at home and abroad," said one of the officials. "Egypt needs a military leader and people want el-Sissi to run."
Since Morsi's ouster, Egypt has faced an insurgency in the strategic Sinai Peninsula by Islamic militants, some with al-Qaida links. In the mainland, Morsi's supporters have been staging almost daily street protests in Cairo and other major cities to demand his reinstatement. The protests often end violently, and there have been growing signs that some of the protesters are armed.
The military-backed government has in the meantime been cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood, jailing thousands of members, including most of its top and mid-level leaders. Morsi himself faces four separate trials, mostly on charges that carry the death penalty.
Egypt's media, which is mostly pro-military, has portrayed the referendum results as favorable to el-Sissi and an endorsement of the roadmap he sponsored: a new constitution followed by presidential and parliamentary elections.
"El-Sissi is the solution," screamed the red banner on Sunday's edition of the daily el-Yum el-Sabea. "The joy of the constitution is complete," said the state-owned el-Gumhorya. "Egypt said 'yes,'" said another state-owned paper, Al-Ahram. "A new constitution for a new era," stated the independent el-Masry el-Youm.
What Egyptians voted on last week was a heavily amended version of a charter drafted by Morsi's Islamist allies and adopted in a nationwide referendum in December 2012. The "yes" vote then was about 64 percent, but turnout was a lowly 33 percent. That vote was half-heartedly boycotted by the opposition, and the low turnout then was seen by the anti-Morsi groups as undermining the legitimacy of the charter.
Still, the fact that twice as many 2012 "yes" voters voted "yes" last week is seen by some as insufficient. Ominously, only 16 percent of Egyptians ages 18 to 30 are said to have voted. That is the segment of the population that served as the engine of the 2011 revolution and the big anti-Morsi demonstrations in June and July last year.
"Many seniors and middle-aged Egyptians are promoting stability and realpolitik, and are willing to accept the repressive measures of the authority in return for having a functional state, in comparison to a substantial portion of the younger generation who are still in the mood for revolution," said Mahmoud, the blogger.
Interim President Adly Mansour, in a televised address to the nation on Sunday night, sought to reassure young Egyptians that they will not be sidelined.
"Continue your march and integrate yourselves in political life," he counseled. "Rest assured that what Egyptians — men, women and the elderly — are striving to build with your help is for you and for your sons. You are the future of the nation."
Hendawi, who has covered the Middle East for the AP since 1995, is the Cairo chief of bureau. AP Reporter Maggie Hyde contributed to this report.