Egypt: Talking Points

By Aima Khosa
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Egypt and its constitutional crisis has been a subject of intense debate among analysts worldwide. So much has been said and written that there is little more to add to the current situation; that is, unless Egyptian politics takes another shift in direction and momentum.

So as things stand, the Egyptian government is bracing itself for a fresh wave of protests over allegations of polling violations on the referendum that was to decide that fate of the controversial constitution that Morsi has been pushing for. There have been calls to cancel the referendum altogether, with several top judges refusing to oversee the next round of polls to be held on Saturday. A top official who was overseeing the referendum has also resigned and then been reinstated.

Morsi supporters have been arguing that this controversial constitution is what the country needs to step out of decades of military-backed regimes and enter a new era of democracy. His critics have argued back that the new constitution ignores the rights of women and the minorities (Christians make up about ten percent of Egypt’s population). There has also been an international divide between pro and anti-Morsi analysts over the constitution as well. Some have claimed that as Egypt is only just learning to be a democracy and the constitution is a solid stepping stone in that direction – since it is the ‘most’ democratic constitution Egypt has ever seen. It guarantees the right to start political parties and allows for freedom of the press. It also bans torture and allows for dignity of the prisoner. However, others have argued that this proposed constitution is just ‘bad’. It gives unelected religious figures the right of prior review of legislation and it allows the Armed Forces to function independently.

Others still have insisted that it is not a question of the constitution. Instead, it is a much deep rooted problem of Egypt’s institutions. There have been fears that with this faulty constitution, the institutions, including the courts, legislature, central executive and even low level officials, would not be able to resist stepping back into old habits. Hence, the deep rooted mistrust by the people is not just the Muslim Brotherhood and its leadership, but the ability of Egyptian institutions to remain true to the constitution.

The Muslim Brotherhood, led by President Morsi, has not played a very positive role in neutralizing the mistrust among the Egyptian public. On the contrary, they have seemed to have antagonized every section of Egyptian society and political structures. A small example of this would be the promise of the Muslim Brotherhood that they would contest for only 30 percent seats in the parliament, then 50 and finally settled for contesting for 70 percent seats. They then promised that they would not nominate a candidate for presidency and even expelled one of its prominent members, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, when he announced his plans to compete. In the end, they nominated Morsi, reneging on promise after promise.

Morsi’s decision to allow the army to enter the streets and arrest protestors has also been called a martial law of a weakened army, trying to keep watch over a society whose divisions are increasingly raw. It has also become a questionable if Morsi’s policies are deliberately designed to provoke and polarize. Under his regime, the same figures that were present under the Mubarak’s era have continued to survive, unscathed and unpunished for some of worst human rights crimes in the country’s history.

But the blame does not lie with Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood alone. The liberals are beating drums about the potential threat of an authoritarian rule – Islamists taking control – without realizing that the current regime in power may also be seen as moderates and reconstructed versions of the Muslim Brotherhood that existed in the 1980s. During that time, application of Islamic law was the core demand of the organization. The demand was not just an idea that Muslim Brotherhood came up with out of thin air – Islamic revival was on the rise in the 1980s in Egypt, so much so that Sufi Abu Talib, the speaker of parliament and a close associate of President Anwar Sadat, was won over by the movement. By 1982, Abu Talib’s committees had produced hundreds of pages of draft legislation including 513 articles on tort reform, 443 on the maritime code, and 635 articles on criminal punishments. Back then, Muslim Brotherhood was more of a Sharia lobby than a political party. Since then, however, the Muslim Brotherhood has worked painstakingly to smoothen the rough edges of its ideology and political out outlook. Today, they believe in a strong president (at the expense of the parliament, and local government). However, they still insist on being democratic, and say that the constitution was a consensus-driven document.

While the Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood representatives oversaw the drafting of the constitution, their disdain for the liberals is not baseless. The liberals have had a history of tolerating an oppressive regime as the lesser of two evils and more importantly, do not have a strong constituency. Liberalism as a concept is foreign to an average Egyptian man – so much so, that if he votes for a liberal leader, it would perhaps be only because he does not want to vote for the Brotherhood, not because he understands what ‘liberalism’ as a concept means.

Having said this, as several writers have pointed out, there is still room for consensus despite the sad mismanagement of the transition. The liberals do not object to the role of religion in public life (the most liberal party in Egypt has carried banners saying ‘Quran is our constitution’). At the same time, the conservatives, now that they are in power, are also eager to look reasonable and responsible. Nour Party, the political arm of the largest Salafi organization, says that “the state should be far from the theocratic model.”

As Shadi Hamid, in the article ‘Is there an Egyptian Nation?’ pointed out, a manufactured consensus may, in fact, be easier to forge now, in this early stage of Egypt’s democratic transition. “Islamists” and “non-Islamists” may hate each other, but, on substance, the gap isn’t currently as large as it might be.