Uproar in Egypt Over President Morsi's Power Play

On November 28, less than a week after Morsi extended the deadline for the drafting of the constitution, the head of the Constituent Assembly, Hossam el-Gheiriani, sent another shockwave through the body politic when he announced that, in fact, the document would be finalized and voted on the very next day. "Come back to us so that we welcome you and you can be our partner," he said to the boycotters, urging them to return for the vote "and not miss a glorious day."

The move represented doubling-down on a strategy by the Brotherhood and its allies to force the transition process — in which they have enjoyed political dominance — to keep moving forward.

The current draft of the Constitution has been widely criticized for articles relating to the role of religion in the state, women's rights, freedom of expression and other civil liberties. Most notable, however, are the provisions relating to the armed forces — a powerful state actor that looms large in the ongoing transition. The constitution thus far preserves many of the privileges enjoyed by the military, including a high degree of political and economic autonomy that preserves its longtime niche as a state within the state. The military budget is not subject to parliamentary oversight; instead the text establishes a National Defense Council — at least half of whose members are drawn from the armed forces — to determine the budget, and which must be consulted on draft laws relating to the military. The proposed constitution also allows for military trials of civilians — a significant blow to Egyptian human rights advocates who fought a tireless campaign against the practice following Mubarak's ouster.

Morsi now has fifteen days to call for a national referendum on the constitution. Given the lack of an alternative if the text is voted down — along with the Brotherhood's proven capacity to win a simple electoral majority — many expect it to pass, paving the way for parliamentary elections.

The President Versus the Judges

Morsi's decree has hardened an existing confrontation between his presidency and the judiciary. As with many institutions of the former regime, calls to reform the judiciary have been widespread. Its ranks contain many Mubarak-era loyalists who have longstanding fears of the political rise of Islamists. Yet even many reform advocates view Morsi's decree as an overreach.

On Saturday, November 24, thousands of judges decided to go on strike to protest the declaration. They were later joined by the Court of Cassation and the Cairo Appeals Court, the two highest appeals courts in Egypt. Unlike the Supreme Constitutional Court, their judges are selected by their peers and cannot be dismissed as Mubarak loyalists. Their decision to strike dealt a significant blow to Morsi.

While Morsi and the Brotherhood have lamented the need to reform the "corrupt" judiciary, there has been no coinciding call to reform other, more acquiescent, state institutions, most notably the Ministry of the Interior. The vast police and security services deploy the same tactics against Egyptian citizens to repress dissent that long characterized the Mubarak era: excessive force against protesters, the torture of detainees, and widespread and arbitrary detentions.

Several days before Morsi's decree, on November 19 thousands of protesters marched on Mohmaed Mahmoud street — a central road connected to Tahrir Square — to commemorate the first anniversary of an uprising that led to the fiercest clashes between police and protesters in post-Mubarak Egypt. At least forty-five people were killed in six days of fighting and hundreds were injured, many being partially blinded by birdshot. To date, not one police officer has been held accountable.

The protesters were calling for justice and accountability, but the march quickly escalated, leading to clashes with police that are still ongoing, ten days later. At least two protesters have been killed. The police have fired seemingly endless supplies of tear gas and constructed two new walls, adding to the around the maze of barricades that line the streets of downtown Cairo.

"This fight started a year ago," says Hossam Hamdy, a 21-year-old university student taking part in the clashes. "The people here won't leave. We want retribution."

Meanwhile, opposition forces have called for more protests in Tahrir on Friday, November 30, as an ongoing sit-in in the square continues. The Brotherhood and the main Salafi groups have announced their intention to hold a mass protest on Saturday in support of the president's decisions, setting the stage for a potentially violent confrontation.

Regardless of what happens, the president's power play is likely to produce a constitution that will have little legitimacy among a sizable portion of the population — and has deepened political cleavages in an already polarized Egypt.

    • Sharif Abdel Kouddous
    • Sharif Abdel Kouddous is an independent journalist based in Cairo. For eight years he served as a senior producer, co-host, and correspondent for Democracy Now! and he remains a frequent contributor to the program. Originally from Cairo, he returned to Egypt in 2011 to cover the Egyptian revolution. He has written for The Natio...

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