Several thousand supporters of Egypt’s President Muhammad Morsi today attacked demonstrators protesting against a power-grab by the country’s Muslim Brotherhood.
The assault came after the Brotherhood called for a counter-protest against what it described as “oppressive abuses” by opposition forces.
Mahmoud Ghozlan, a Brotherhood spokesman, was quoted on the group’s Facebook page as saying the abuses were committed by groups that “imagined they could shake legitimacy or impose their view with force”.
“The Brotherhood’s disdain for liberals is nothing new and is, at least in part, a product of the Mubarak years, when many liberals tolerated the Mubarak regime as the lesser of two evils,” writes Shadi Hamid, an analyst at Brookings’ Doha Center:
But it runs deeper than that: Islamists generally don’t see liberals as having any natural constituency in Egypt. Moreover, they represent an ideology that is foreign to Egypt and, worse, morally subversive. To the extent that Egyptians ever support “liberals,” it’s only because they don’t want to vote for the Brotherhood, not because they’re liberal or even know what “liberalism” means.
Secular and liberal groups are concerned that the draft constitution drawn up by a panel packed with Islamists is taking the country’s transition in a profoundly illiberal direction, a trajectory unlikely to be checked by any countervailing forces or institutions.
“Unlike the Islamist-led government in Turkey, Egypt lacks the checks and balances necessary to ensure the balance of power and avoid authoritarian tendencies,” notes analyst Rula Jebreal:
In Turkey, the PKK party is restrained by the state’s secular constitution, strong military institutions, and a secular legal system. Egypt will never be a secular state, nor should it have to be. However, the Brotherhood or any other party must be held accountable by independent state institutions.
“Liberals’ problem with Morsi’s decree is not so much its authoritarian overtones,” Brookings analyst Hamid observes, “but that its authoritarianism is (or could be) in the service of an ideology — Islamism — that they view as an existential threat to Egypt.”
There is also concern about threats to freedom of expression arising from the constitution’s provisions stipulating that news media must uphold public morality and the “true nature of the Egyptian family,” and requiring government authorization to operate a TV station or a Web site.
“The protection of freedom of expression is fatally undermined by all the provisions that limit it,” said Heba Morayef, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. “On paper, they have not protected freedom of expression. It is designed to let the government limit those rights on the basis of ‘morality’ or the vague concept of ‘insult.’ ”
As the charter will be put to a referendum on December 15, Morsi no longer requires the untrammelled powers he granted himself with a recent edict, observers suggest.
“The only reason the decree still exists is to protect the Shura Council,” says Ahmed Aboul Enein, a reporter for Daily News Egypt, noting that the upper house has an Islamist supermajority of 83 percent with the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party commanding a 58 percent majority.
“Morsi and the Brotherhood know they will not be able to replicate their electoral victory in the 2011 parliamentary elections,” he writes in the Atlantic Council’s Egypt Source:
So instead, the draft constitution gives the ineffective Shura Council, elected by less than seven percent of the country’s eligible voters, full legislative authority. The proposed constitution also specifies that the current council will remain intact until a lower house of parliament is elected. At that point, legislative authority will be transferred, and a new Shura Council will be elected within six months of the House of Representative’s first session.
“Morsi is essentially guaranteeing the Brotherhood maintains the legislative majority for the immediate time period after which the constitution passes,” Enein concludes.
“While not foreordained, a slow drift toward illiberal majoritarianism is now distinctly possible, as is the attendant instability that is likely to ensue,” Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation, writes on Foreign Policy.
Morsi impressed the United States and other international actors with his role in the Israel-Hamas conflict, but he should not be given a pass.
“Morsi’s pragmatism should not come as a surprise. It is a clear reflection of enduring national interests and the infeasibility of aggression towards Israel,” he argues. “Rewarding Morsi for his pragmatic approach to the recent Gaza conflict is a case of offering inducements for a policy already decided.”
Such pragmatism is unlikely to last, Hanna contends:
With an Islamist-led government now in place in Egypt, the deep-seated anti-Israel sentiments of the Muslim Brotherhood and its ideological affinity for Islamist fellow-travelers such as Hamas will reshape regional dynamics. Egypt will undoubtedly play a greater role in championing the Palestinian cause, and future Egyptian governments will abandon the anti-Hamas policies long pursued by the Mubarak regime.
“If America acquiesces anew to authoritarian behavior in Cairo, it won’t win a new stable ally; it will only further alienate the many Egyptians who find the transactional nature of U.S.-Egyptian ties repugnant,” Hanna concludes. “Even worse, it will encourage a destructive political culture that provides an unstable foundation for future relations.”
“Islamists are Islamists for a reason. They have a distinct ideological project, even if they themselves struggle to articulate what it actually entails,” Brookings analyst Hamid observes:
The Brotherhood has already been developing something called the “Nahda Project,” a sort of dream for Islamist would-be technocrats. While some of the project’s ideas on institutional reform, economic development, and urban renewal are impressive, they shouldn’t be taken as the end point of what Islamists are trying to do.
Egypt’s liberals have an unprecedented opportunity “to seize the momentum from the Islamists,” say two prominent analysts.
The National Salvation Front, led by progressive Hamdeen Sabahi, Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, and former Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa should forget about making the case that the Brotherhood’s draft constitution is too Islamic or conservative,” write Tarek Masoud and Wael Nawara.
“Instead, liberals need to focus on what has worked for them in the past—organizing to oppose unchecked power,” they argue. “After all, there is something deeply reminiscent of the old regime and the way it did business in Morsi’s declaration that his decisions are ‘final and binding and cannot be appealed by any way or to any entity,’ and his arrogating to himself the power to ‘take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution.’”
The new constitution features a range of authoritarian provisions, such as limits on freedom of association.
“Egyptian workers have struggled in recent years to establish genuinely independent labor unions, and they were a driving force in the movement that brought down Mubarak. One would have expected, then, that the new constitution would reflect their aspirations,” Masoud and Nawar note:
Instead, it restricts the formation of trade unions “to only one per profession,” and contains lukewarm language on the right to strike, saying only that worker actions will be regulated by the law (opening up the possibility of restrictions). On Nov. 24, the president issued a law increasing the government’s control over the country’s largest trade union, further suggesting that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Egypt will not be friendly to organized labor.
“The liberals need to figure out what to say about the constitution to the millions of Egyptians who don’t necessarily share their fine liberal sensibilities, and then they have to make sure that they say it often and loudly enough to get voters to reject it at the polls,” they contend:
If you’ve followed the twists and turns in Egypt’s 20-month democratic odyssey—particularly the way the country’s liberals have been repeatedly outplayed by Islamists—you could be forgiven for being pessimistic about the liberals’ prospects of pulling this off. But the newfound energy in the hitherto moribund liberal camp, and the show of unity between perennially divided leaders like ElBaradei, Moussa, and Sabahi, may be evidence that the non-Islamists are finally making their way up the political learning curve. Whether they’ve learned enough to beat the Muslim Brotherhood is an open question.