Islamist and secular Egyptians go head to head in the run-up to a referendum

Turmoil in Egypt

A presidential grab?

AFTER 18 months of turbulence in the wake of Egypt’s revolution, the election victory of Muhammad Morsi last June promised relief. True, he won by a slim margin, and only because many voters feared his rival, a stalwart of the old regime who threatened a return to the despotic past, more than they feared the Muslim Brotherhood’s man. Yet with his gruff, folksy manner and pledge to be even-handed, the new president heralded a fresh start under legitimate, democratic rule. Even doubters were willing to give the Brother a chance.

In the space of a few days Mr Morsi has demolished such hopes. His actions have polarised Egypt’s exhausted people. The most populous and politically pivotal Arab state stands on the brink of prolonged civil strife, or a descent into a form of veiled dictatorship not unlike the one so recently overthrown, only this time in drab Islamist garb. An ugly taste of what may be to come unfolded in Cairo on December 5th, as thousands of Muslim Brothers answered an official call to disperse secular protesters gathered outside the presidential palace, sparking the most vicious street clashes seen since the revolution, leaving at least five people dead.

Naturally, Mr Morsi and his Islamists see themselves as representing right and reason. His snap decision on November 22nd to grant himself sweeping new powers was necessary, they say, to forestall an alleged plot by counter-revolutionaries to block the passage of a new constitution. The move by Islamist parties to ram through the half-baked draft of the charter in a single overnight sitting of the constituent assembly on November 30th was also necessary, they argue. Despite the resignation of all but a handful of non-Islamist members, the Islamists view the 100-person assembly as a vital locus of legitimacy. It was, after all, appointed by an Islamist-dominated parliament last summer, shortly before Egypt’s highest court disbanded the parliament because of supposed flaws in the rules under which it was elected.

Mr Morsi, say his people, is acting merely in the interest of all Egyptians to bring the turmoil to a close. His call for a referendum on the constitution on December 15th will allow for fresh parliamentary elections and define a legitimate new order. The president’s men say the poll represents a fair, democratic choice, and is the only way to resolve deep and festering disputes over Egypt’s future. With the Brotherhood’s disciplined cadres, and with mosque sermons already promoting a yes vote as a victory for the faith, the Islamists are confident the constitution will pass.

Should it do so, secular-minded people worry lest the Brotherhood’s gains prove hard to reverse. According to the constitutional draft, the upper house of parliament, which courts have not yet got around to disbanding, having scrapped the lower house, will act as a temporary full legislature until a new lower house is elected. It will stay in session for a further six months. This will help the Islamists, as they hold 83% of its elected seats, largely because only 7% of the electorate bothered to vote in upper-house elections early this year, thinking it a toothless body likely to be scrapped under a new constitution.

More importantly to the Islamists, the new constitution enshrines sharia (Islamic law) in more rigorous terms than previously. It also imposes a specific body, al-Azhar, a 1,000-year-old Islamic university, as the sole authority to interpret sharia, without defining how this would be balanced against existing legal authorities. With its weak protections for individual rights, the press, trade unions and the independence of the judiciary, along with provisions for a strong executive, the constitution would grant any winning party powers akin to those of the fallen Mubarak regime.

The abruptness of the Islamists’ lunge for control has ignited Egypt’s hitherto fractious opposition in outrage, prompting protests on the scale of those during the revolution. A group of former presidential candidates has picked Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel peace prize-winner and former UN official, as their leader, and threatened strikes and continued protests until Mr Morsi relents. The judges, who usually run such things, plan to boycott the referendum. But he shows no signs of backing down. Tired, impoverished and apprehensive, ordinary Egyptians may be tempted to let the Brothers have their way.

Courtesy: http://www.economist.com