Morsi’s Egypt spirals further into chaos with apparent Dec. 15 constitutional referendum

It’s hard to believe that 10 days ago, Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi seemed firmly in control of events in the Arab world’s most populous country — he had just been instrumental in achieving a ceasefire between Palestinians in Gaza and Israel, and Egypt’s constituent assembly, despite some difficulties, was plodding its way toward the draft of a new constitution for a newly democratized nation.

Today, of course, Morsi stands at the most controversial point of his young presidency, defending the unilateral decree he announced on November 22 asserting extraordinary (if temporary) presidential powers, and hoping to push through a referendum in just 12 days — on December 15 — over a constitution rushed out by the constituent assembly just last week.

Morsi announced the referendum over the weekend, which means there will be no shortage of tumult in the days and weeks ahead.

I’ve not written much about the latest political crisis in Egypt, the latest act in what seems like an unending drama that began with the Tahrir Square protests in January 2011 that pushed longtime Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak from office, through over a year of military rule by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the 2011 parliamentary elections and their subsequent cancellation, even more parliamentary elections and their (second) disqualification, and a roller-coaster presidential election that ended with Morsi’s narrow victory over former Air Force commander Ahmed Shafiq on June 24.

Morsi, just over five months into his tenure as Egypt’s president, has argued that the decree is necessary to safeguard Egypt’s strides toward democracy, and if he wins his latest gambit, he’ll have pushed Egypt from the post-revolutionary phase into something more enduring, although at the cost of an Egyptian constitution that remains incredibly controversial and at the risk of having enacted it in a manner entirely inconsistent with democratic norms and the rule of law.

Pro-revolutionary forces took to Tahrir Square last week once again in opposition to Morsi, and pro-Islamist forces counter-protested over the weekend in favor of Morsi.  But with now, apparently, less than two weeks to go until the constitutional referendum, it’s worth taking a look at where each of the key players in the unfolding events stand.  

Morsi.  As Hazem Kandil writes in The Guardian, Morsi has presented a strong, if imperfect case for why he needed to assert temporary power to see through Egypt’s constitutional process:

Voters demand revolutionary changes and retribution against former president Hosni Mubarak’s cronies, yet judges still loyal to their old political masters overrule the reforms he proposes and trials are still carried out by Mubarak’s handpicked general prosecutor, a man who served the ruling party for over a decade. Little wonder that most cases brought against Mubarak’s associates flop in court….

At the same time, those who weep over the sanctity of the legal system include some of the old regime’s most sinister figures, now reinventing themselves as friends of freedom. And the same people who censure the president over legal violations have until recently been preaching that revolutionary justice trumps the law.

As Kandil also notes, however, many Egyptians suspect Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood (جماعة الاخوان المسلمين‎) do not necessarily have the best interests of all Egyptians at heart.  In the same week that Morsi was granting interviews in English to Time magazine and confirming his committment to democracy in Egypt, there’s no doubt that he has pushed the constituent assembly to take a hasty affirmative vote and now seems likely to push the constitution to an even more hasty referendum, despite genuine concerns from secular liberals, Coptic Christians and other minorities.

Morsi has long been forced to balance an unenviable number of competing interests, including his own supporters within the Muslim Brotherhood, the security forces that still wield much power in Egypt, U.S. policymakers that continue to provide aid and guidance to Egypt and its military, not to mention more stridently Islamist fundamentals on one side of the political axis and secular liberal reformers on the other side.

I have long argued in favor of giving Morsi the benefit of the doubt in balancing these interests — after all, it’s in his interest and the Muslim Brotherhood’s interest for Morsi to secure the gains of the Egyptian revolution, including a lasting constitutional framework, and to accomplish not only political and constitutional reform, but to move on to the economic reforms that Egypt so badly needs.

Morsi is certainly no modern-day Cincinnatus willing to lay down his (and the Muslim Brotherhood’s) political power to bring about an overly secular Egyptian constitutional consensus, but neither is Morsi an Islamist hell-bent on pushing through a sharia-based constitutional order.

The Muslim Brotherhood.  Although Morsi is no longer, as a technical matter, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood or the Freedom and Justice Party (حزب الحرية والعدال) that represents the Brotherhood’s political interests, it’s clear that the Brotherhood and its supporters see the current standoff as an opportunity to push through a relatively Islamist constitution for Egypt.

In counter-protests on Saturday in Giza, protestors seem motivated more to promote an Islamic vision of Egypt’s future than to defend Morsi’s tactics:

Support for Morsy aside, there was also a clear sense that applying [s]haria was a long-awaited ambition. The constitution draft has clear stipulations about [s]haria principles being the source of legislation, with its “jurisprudential and fundamental basis.”

Hassan Thabet Ammar, the owner of a chain store in Maadi, says, “Sharia is a way of life that suits our culture. Egyptian customs and traditions go in line with [s]haria. The Egyptian society does not accept Western liberalism.”

“Muslims and Christians agree on these principles,” he adds. “Ask a Christian, not a Muslim, if he would accept his daughter leaving home when she reaches the age of 16 or having a boyfriend. Egypt is not Europe.”

Salafists and other more ardent Islamists.  Although the Salafi Jihadi Movement announced it would boycott the December 15 referendum yesterday, more moderate Salafists and most supporters of the Al-Nour (حزب النور‎) party have also demonstrated alongside the Muslim Brotherhood in favor of Morsi.  In the prior elections (since invalidated), the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party won 235 seats and the Salafist Al-Nour Party won 121 seats — well over two-thirds of the entire People’s Assembly of Egypt.

Although the most hard-line Islamists will oppose the constitution, one of the chief criticisms with the constitution is that it remains too Islamist and fails to guarantee religious and other freedoms for religious and other minorities.  For example, Article 2 states that sharia principles are the main source of legislation, Article 4 grants a consultative role to senior Islam scholars at Al-Azhar University (widely seen as the top authority on Sunni orthodoxy), Article 10 enumerates to the state the power to preserve the ‘genuine nature’ of the Egyptian family and its moral values and Article 11 gives the state power to ‘safeguard’ ethics and morality.

The Egyptian judiciary.  Egypt’s Supreme Judicial Council earlier today agreed to monitor and oversee the referendum scheduled for December 15, which makes it much likelier that the referendum will actually take place.  The decision comes after several judges over the weekend joined opponents in calling to boycott the referendum, attacking Morsi’s moves as dictatorial.

But Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court has often opposed Morsi — in the week before Morsi was elected, it invalidated the second legislative elections and disbanded Egypt’s parliament (new parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place within two months of the constitution’s completion), and the Constitutional Court has otherwise generally ruled in ways that have limited Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from obtaining too much power too rapidly.  Notably, before the latest crisis, the Constitutional Court was set to determine the legality of the current constituent assembly.

Nonetheless, over the weekend, the Court announced it would halt all of its work in protest of Islamist pressure against the court.

For Morsi’s part, his November 22 decree declared that the judiciary would not have any power to reverse his decisions.

The Egyptian military.  Since August, when Morsi fired field marshal Hussein Tantawi, who led SCAF and had served as the head of Egypt’s military since his initial appointment as Egyptian defense secretary in 1991, Morsi has been seen as having the upper hand over not just the Egyptian military, but also against the ‘deep state’ remnants of three decades of Mubarak-era rule.

For now, however, the Egyptian military’s role has been preserved in the draft constitution, and so Egypt’s security forces would be far from displeased with a ‘yes’ result that enshrines the Egyptian military as a key player in Egypt’s new constitutional regime.  With Tantawi sidelined and more Islam-friendly military leaders taking top roles, however, former hard-liners and secularists alike fear the military’s increasing Islamization — real or perceived.

Note that if the ongoing political and constitutional crisis skids further out of control, it could become increasingly likely that Egypt’s military would intervene with force on behalf of Morsi or, if Morsi’s situation deteriorates, even push Morsi out of the presidency and call for new elections (like the Turkish military did for so much of the 20th century).

The constituent assembly and Egypt’s constitution.  Prior to last week’s vote in favor of the existing constitution, over one-fifth of the constituent assembly’s members had left, including all of its Christian members, following disputes during the constitutional negotiations.

Indeed, there are any number of complaints with the new draft constitution’s positions, above and beyond its non-specific endorsement of sharia as the main source, in principle, of Egyptian law:

On aggregate, the current draft is criticized for not bearing enough safeguards to uphold freedoms, bestows too many authorities upon the president in a way that disrupts the division of powers and generally relies on legal arrangements in critical unresolved matters to evade the lack of consensus over the current draft.

Morsi’s actions seem to be filtered through the fear that the Supreme Constitutional Court would dissolve the current constituent assembly, although, as Ursula Lindsey writes at The Arabist, Morsi would have retained the power to appoint a new constituent assembly — so why resort to such extreme extralegal means to push the current draft constitution through a vote?  Lindsey also asks perhaps the most important question of all:

What happens if Egyptians vote down the constitution? Is there even a plan? (and if there isn’t, what kind of a “choice” is this?)

Liberal reformers, women and Coptic Christians.

Although they have fared relatively poorly in electoral politics since the 2011 revolution, Egypt retains a high-profile group of liberal reformers, including Hamdeen Sabahi, who finished a very close third place in the first round of the presidential election, former secretary-general of the Arab League Amr Moussa, and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei.

ElBaradei, for his part, has attacked Morsi’s decree and resulting actions in the harshest terms possible:

 He grabbed full power for himself. Not even the pharaohs had so much authority, to say nothing of his predecessor Hosni Mubarak. This is a catastrophe — it a mockery of the revolution that brought him to power and an act that leads one to fear the worst.

 Furthermore, many of the individuals who have walked out of the constituent assembly’s deliberations have been secular liberals — and Coptic Christians — who have been dismayed at the constitutional draft’s lack of protections, especially for women and religious minorities.

Morsi and his advisors are likely betting that they still have enough electoral muscle to push through a successful vote on December 15, but his actions, starting on November 22, have given the various liberal opposition interests the one thing they’ve lacked since the fall of Mubarak — unity in their overwhelmingly negative response to Morsi’s overreaching.

Photo credit to Virginie Nguyen.

4 thoughts on “Morsi’s Egypt spirals further into chaos with apparent Dec. 15 constitutional referendum”

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