CAIRO - Egyptians went to the polls on Dec. 15, nearly two years after forcing Hosni Mubarak from office, faced with the momentous choice of whether to adopt a controversial draft constitution that could define public and private life in the Arab world's most populous country.
The result will not only represent a verdict on the constitution -- it will be seen in part as a referendum on President Mohamed Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood, which dominated the drafting process. It may also deliver a verdict on the historically fractious opposition, which for the first time since the revolution seemed to have an opportunity to reverse the gains of the Islamist forces that currently dominate Egypt's political scene. But the Brotherhood's foes had the chance to muster an even larger "no" vote -- if only they had organized sooner.
Opposition figures interviewed by Foreign Policy before the voting, which will continue with a second round on Dec. 22, painted a picture of a movement that had corrected some of its major flaws -- but whose leading lights still disagreed about the basics of participating in Egypt's shaky democracy.
"Irrespective of the problems we may have had ... people realize at the end of the day that we can push our limitations farther out," said Naguib Abadir, a founding member of the Free Egyptians, a leading liberal party that pushed for a boycott. "Reality is imposing itself, and some egos have been deflated after the failures of the past few months."
"I see light at the end of the tunnel. I see a president who is extremely weak," Abadir said. "We'll see if he survives this."
For the first time since Mubarak fell, a broad coalition of non-Islamist parties calling themselves the National Salvation Front (NSF) banded together before a vote. But the coalition's leadership hesitated at the decisive moment: Stalled by internal debate over whether to boycott a process many believed would be rigged, they issued a public call to vote "no" just three days before the referendum.
Even on the night of Dec. 15, after the media began reporting results that showed the referendum leading, party chiefs still debated whether to pull out, only to decide against it, NSF operatives said. The front now alleges that systematic fraud and illegal voter suppression artificially swung a vote that they claim they won by 65 percent.
Unofficial results reported by independent media outlets and the Muslim Brotherhood showed that 56.5 percent of those participating in the first round of voting supported the referendum. The prospects for a "no" victory seem grim, as the remaining 17 governorates set to vote in the second round are Brotherhood strongholds.
It could have been even closer: The referendum came at a moment when the Muslim Brotherhood had been knocked off balance, after dueling protests and street violence erupted in the last week of November. Morsy had issued a decree declaring both himself and the constitutional assembly immune from judicial oversight, infuriating the opposition and causing the media to hammer the president for his power grab. Meanwhile, two private polls commissioned by opposition forces showed a nation almost evenly divided on the constitution.