Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi on Saturday rescinded the decree granting himself powers beyond those held by deposed President Hosni Mubarak. Morsi’s decree, announced Nov. 22, sparked widespread protests, which his retraction this weekend has not stemmed. Now civil strife in Egypt is centered on the Islamist-leaning draft constitution and Morsi’s determination to hold a referendum on the document on Dec. 15.
Egypt’s opposition coalition have called for more protests, following tense altercations last week when Muslim Brotherhood supporters clashed violently with opposition protesters at the heavily guarded gates of presidential palace in Cairo. In a move disturbingly reminiscent of Mubarak’s authoritarian leadership, the government Sunday granted the army the right to arrest citizens to safeguard the disputed referendum.
Some ambiguity remains over whether opposition groups will rally behind a boycott of the referendum or a push for “no” votes. Scholars and commentators point out too that it may not be the draft constitution itself at the heart of Egypt’s current crisis, but rather the process through which the referendum has been foisted on the people.
“Yes”, “No” or boycott?
The Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice party, have announced that Islamist groups will hold “two peaceful million-man marches” on Tuesday to rally “yes” votes for the referendum. Meanwhile, according to the Guardian’s live blog, opposition groups are wavering between pushing for “no” votes — which would risk legitimizing the constitution as only a simple majority is needed to pass — or a boycott, which some worry could further divide the fractured nation. “The ambivalence may be a reflection of divisions in the ranks of the opposition,” commented the AP’s Hamza Hendawi.
The document or the process?
Writing on Al Jazeera, U.C. Irvine professor of Middle Eastern history Mark LeVine noted that the content of the constitution is not the central problem here, “it was the process rather than the document that brought Egypt to the the present moment,” he wrote. LeVine pointed out that the constitution itself is in many ways no more problematic (in terms of containing criticized articles) than many Western constitutions, while its Islamist bent, stressing the role of Sharia as a source of law, is “accepted by the overwhelming majority of Egyptians and thus could not reasonably be expected to be excluded from a democratically drafted document.” But Morsi’s process has rightfully caused severe strife:
Perhaps the best summary of the problems with the constitutional process comes from a joint statement by twenty-two Egyptian rights organizations, who declared that “the president has contravened the revolution’s goals of democratization and exploited the expansive powers he granted to himself shortly after his election to arrogate unparalleled powers and immunize his decisions against judicial oversight, thus precluding the possibility of any challenges or opposition to them by legal and judicial means”. This is the context in which the draft Constitution was approved, and which precipitated the unprecedented new wave of protests.
Clashes between Morsi supporters and opponents have claimed eight lives with more than 700 injured. “Numerous eyewitness accounts and news reports from independent media and human rights organizations strongly suggest that the vast majority of the violence during the last week has been precipitated either by government forces or Morsi/Muslim Brotherhood supporters,”noted LeVine. Meanwhile, many opposition protesters frame the current unrest as the next stage in an incomplete revolution.