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.
But a fundamental disagreement emerged within the NSF: The Free Egyptians and prominent liberal Mohamed ElBaradei's Constitution Party argued for a boycott, while the leftist Social Democrats and others wanted to try to rally the "no" vote. The front ended up adopting a middle path, calling for "escalating" protests in the hope that labor unions would join in with major strikes. While protests gripped Tahrir Square and the streets outside the presidential palace, the strikes never materialized and Morsy decided to wait out the unrest.
On Dec. 7, as Tahrir Square began to fill with a demonstration, Constitution Party member and NSF spokesman Khaled Dawoud sat in a café, juggling calls from aides to ElBaradei and other party leaders. A former U.S.-based correspondent for the state-owned Ahram newspaper and later Al Jazeera Arabic, Dawoud said the constitution had been drafted improperly and did not guarantee "the freedoms that we fought for in Tahrir one year ago."
"We have no option but to continue with demonstrations and escalation and hope they will see the light," he said.
Dawoud grimaced at the prospect of discussing the political maneuvering required to beat the referendum, or what its result might indicate for the future of the opposition coalition.
"I'll give you an answer when we get there," he said.
But across the Nile, on the second floor of a shabby downtown high-rise, the Social Democrats were already there. Three days earlier, Mohamed Arafat, the party's chief field organizer, had listed off the governorates in the Delta region where his officers had already been campaigning for a "no" vote.
Arafat believed, like Dawoud, that Morsy had lost his slim majority through strong-arm tactics and poor governance. But unlike Dawoud, he thought it was possible to turn these into an opposition electoral victory.
"A lot of people are talking about boycotting.... If ElBaradei says boycott, it will make a big problem for us, but I believe this time we must say no," he said.
Even if the constitution passed, Arafat argued, participating would give the opposition an opportunity to rally supporters. He was already looking ahead to parliamentary elections, which would follow two months after a "yes" vote on the constitution.
"If 40 percent or more say ‘no,' those voters can vote for us in the next election," he said.
But the disagreements within the NSF made it difficult to either rally these voters or organize a boycott. The day after Morsy called the referendum, the Salvation Front put together a team of high-powered marketers, fundraisers, and producers to prepare a "no" campaign. They produced advertisements critiquing the constitution's articles, filmed chatty man-on-the-street interviews, and built a website called LaLelDostour.com ("No to the Constitution") and a Facebook group called the Popular Move to Reject the Constitution.
For more than a week, however, the NSF kept the campaign in its pocket. On Dec. 11, without discussion, the advertisements suddenly appeared on television bearing a Social Democrats tagline, according to one of the team members. The party had pushed out the material by itself.
Hesitancy is nothing new for Egypt's opposition, which has lacked a killer instinct and effective command structure from the beginning, said Robert Becker, a Cairo-based political consultant who advised Egyptian parties for the National Democratic Institute. (Becker and dozens of employees of NDI and other civil-society groups are currently on trial for their work.)
"Statistically it's there, but to win this [referendum] they need message and organization," he said. "Organically, it's happening, but it's not because of the direction of any of these liberal parties."
Unofficial results show that the Dec. 15 poll had perhaps the lowest turnout of any vote since the revolution. Earlier mobilization could have made the difference in getting more "no" voters to the polls.
The NSF's "no" campaign team received the results of two opinion polls on Dec. 13 and 14, too late to be of use. The polls, each involving phone or personal interviews with around 1,200 mostly male subjects across the country, showed roughly 30 percent of those surveyed remained undecided.
"This [vote] can go anywhere based on our polling in the first 10 governorates," the team member said.
The opposition's hard line -- no negotiations and continued protests -- was intended to give them political leverage, but when the decision finally came to get out the "no" vote, "It was too late ... to increase the effectiveness of the marketing campaign."
Egypt's opposition leaders may be facing an existential moment: If they can't exploit cracks within the Muslim Brotherhood's dominance now, after the Islamist organization has stumbled so publicly, they risk being marginalized in another Islamist parliament -- one that is unlikely to be dissolved like its predecessor. But the political diversity that makes the opposition a formidable Brotherhood foe also hinders its ability to coordinate.
Egypt's new opposition not only contains longtime revolutionaries, but also those who supported Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister and Morsy's foe in the presidential election, as well as others with ties to the former regime. Some inside the coalition are uneasy with their new friends -- not only Shafiq, who is persona non grata, but also figures like Mubarak's former foreign minister, Amr Moussa.
"I refuse Moussa," said Mamdouh Salah, a 32-year-old civil engineer and chief of the Social Democrats' street campaign in Mahalla. The industrial city of some half a million people in the Delta is known for its restive labor movement, and the governorate as a whole joined Cairo in voting against the constitution.
On the wall of the third-floor office, just above a women's beauty salon, nobody had removed a sticker showing Moussa's face next to those of Shafiq and feared former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. A relic of the May presidential campaign, it stated "they can't rule," and below, "we're not going to vote for the old system or their supporters."
Salah said he wouldn't blame the Salvation Front's leadership for working with the "remnants" of Mubarak's regime and that he would try to win over voters of all factions, but he said that they would not be his political partners.
"Here in Mahalla, we have a revolutionary perspective," he said.
For him, the battle for the referendum was far from the main event -- his goal was nothing less than to defeat by almost any means a Brotherhood regime that he believed had committed the same sins as Mubarak.
"Voting up or down won't solve the problem from its roots," he said. "Egypt is not a stable country."