Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi today visited the Sinai Peninsula to reassure Coptic families who fled from the town of Rafah after receiving death threats from radical Islamists.
The episode has alarmed the Coptic church and rights groups, and Morsi’s visit appears designed to assuage growing concern at the illiberal trajectory of Egypt’s transition after two Coptic boys were arrested for blasphemy earlier this week, while a Muslim Brotherhood imam called for ‘infidel’ liberals and secularists to be prosecuted for abandoning Islam.
“If they do not repent, the judge must apply the penalty for apostasy,” said Wagdy Ghoneim. “If anyone tells you that he is liberal, tell him directly that he is infidel.”
Ghoneim issued a fatwa prohibiting membership of the Constitution Party, led by Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei.
The Brotherhood-led government has also granted pardons to dozens of violent jihadists, including Mustafa Hamza, a leading member of Gamaa Islamiya implicated in the 1997 Luxor massacre when 60 foreign tourists were massacred and mutilated.
Secular and liberal politicians are alarmed at provisions of the new constitution currently being drafted by an Islamist-dominated panel. They are calling on Morsi to ensure a “balanced” constitution, but some observers doubt that he will respond to their concerns.
“It is not clear right now whether he has the willingness or the ability to govern through a national consensus rather than ruling as a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University. “The real test will be the coming constitution.”
While Egypt’s former constitution recognized the “principles” of sharia as the main source of legislation, Salafists are pushing for a provision identifying “the rules of sharia”, or simply sharia, as the main source of legislation and for Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, a 1,000-year-old font of Sunni Muslim doctrine, to have exclusive authority for interpreting sharia.
“Secular critics fear that al-Azhar’s current, relatively liberal tendency could change, and see this push as a dangerous step towards creating an Iranian-style theocracy,” says The Economist, which notes that Al-Azhar itself opposes the move.
“The ‘principles’ of Islamic sharia is an inclusive term that reflects the consensus of Muslim clerics,” says a university scholars on the constitution-drafting body. “Scholars differ over the text for ‘rules of Islamic sharia’ because these change all the time, while the constitution should express fixed principles.”
A spokesman for the constitution-drafting body told Ahram Online that the assembly chairman had demanded that rival factions meet to settle their differences, fearing that the “the assembly will be paralyzed or will explode from within.”
The issue of the new religious articles proposed by the ultraconservative Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood was the primary focus of the meeting.
“These include Article 2 dealing with Islamic Sharia law, laws to be applied to non-Muslims, the formation of Zakat (alms-giving) and Waqf (religious endowment) institutions, the role of the Sunni Islam institution of Al-Azhar and blasphemy laws,” the spokesman explained.
During Wednesday’s conference, the secular camp asserted that as many as nine articles of the draft constitution should be re-written in order to ensure that Egypt remains a modern civil state.
“Secular members have indicated many times they will withdraw if they see that they are not able to prevent a constitution being written that is aimed at turning Egypt into a religious state,” Ayman Nour, liberal assembly member and secretary-general of the newly formed Congress Party, admitted to Ahram Online. …Nour agreed that issues of women’s rights and freedoms of expression are “top of the agenda for secular forces”, adding that they will “fight hard to ensure the new constitution reflects that.”
Representatives from civil society groups, secular activists and politicians announced the formation of a popular front to reject the constitution being drafted by the Constituent Assembly. The group will draft an alternative constitution, said Hafez Abu Seada, head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.
“This group is the fruit of cooperation and coordination between a number of civil and political forces, including the Popular Current and the Constitution, Wafd, Democratic Front, and Labor parties,” he said. “The aim of the front is to besiege the Constituent Assembly so that it will be dissolved and reformed,” he added, stressing that, “the foundations upon which the assembly was formed are unacceptable.”
The new constitution must reflect the international legal norms to which Egypt is a signatory, says a prominent analyst.
“Egypt as a member of the international community has signed conventions and treaties preserving human rights,” said Amr Hamzawy, a founder of the liberal Free Egypt Party. “Hence, we can’t have constitutional articles contradicting those conventions.”
He also opposed Islamist efforts to inject openly religious duties, such as Zakat (alms) into the constitution, and efforts to curb the rights of women and young girls.
“It is embarrassing to think about constitutional articles allowing marriage of young women, instead of focusing on the demanded notions of social equality and citizenship,” said Hamzawy.
Morsi is coming under fire for his failure to deliver a on a five-point plan for improving ordinary citizens’ lives during his first 100 days in office by improving garbage collection and traffic congestion, resolving fuel shortages, restoring security and supplying bread to the poor.
“Morsi’s 100-day plan was an absolute failure,” said Hamzawy.
The president has been preoccupied with foreign policy issues at the expense of domestic concerns, analysts suggest.
“One of the main goals of Morsi is to reshape the image of himself as an independent president, democratically elected by the Egyptians,” said Khalil Al Anani, an expert at Britain’s Durham University.
“He is trying to invest in the historical credentials of Egypt. He is very preoccupied by the nationalistic and patriotic character of Egypt,” Al Anani told AFP.
Egypt’s economic crisis also remains unresolved.
“The economic situation, the public accounts and the legacy of corruption of the Mubarak regime are the major challenges Morsi is facing right now,” Al Anani said.
“The problem is that so far Morsi has no clear economic policy except to borrow money from the outside,” he said.
The Brotherhood is also engaged in fierce political competition with Salafist groups, including elements of the Nour party which this week fractured due to internal factional strife.
“The party is exploding from inside,” said Mohammed Habib, a former Brotherhood leader. “In the street, it has lost its credibility. People see clerics who they used to see as men of God engaging in earthy disputes. They used to trust them. This will have a negative impact not only on Al-Nour or Salafis but on all Islamists in politics.”
The impact of the split is a subject of speculation among analysts:
If Al-Nour breaks up, the Muslim Brotherhood could benefit as some religious conservatives turn to it as a political vehicle. A longtime Brotherhood leader, Mohammed Morsi, is Egypt’s president. Other Salafis could turn to more radical extremist groups, including former jihadist groups that have now formed political parties.
“This is the end of the religious utopia,” wrote Anani, an expert on Islamic movements, in Al-Hayat. “Mixing … between political and religious activity is a ticking bomb inside the Islamic currents.”
Observers might expect the Islamists’ turmoil “would be the perfect time for the secular parties to push forward and score some political points,” saysMahmoud Salem (aka Sandmonkey). To the contrary: “nothing that is happening on that front can be taken seriously anymore,” he contends:
The secular parties…have created five different coalitions so far and counting. The Social Democratic Party, high on an internal “election” in which no one lost and everybody won, are currently negotiating a merger with the Free Egyptians Party, to create one party that truly doesn’t represent anyone. There are talks with Hamdeen Sabahy’s people to join them in a coalition, as long as the parties agree that Sabahy will be their candidate in the next elections. Completely ignoring the fact that the Sabahy is an accidental candidate, and that his votes were basically the ElBaradei voters who just couldn’t vote for Abul Fotouh, the parties seem to be agreeing to Sabahy’s demand, because, honestly, who do they have that can compete nationally anyway?