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Egypt: From Revolution to Referendum

Since the fall of Mubarak, Egypt has seen tumult and unrest, sharp divisions in society and politics, and efforts to protect and undermine its ongoing revolution.
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A protest in Tahrir Square, Cairo, in November 2011. Photograph by Hossam el-Hamalawy.

Since former dictator Hosni Mubarak was overthrown by a popular uprising on that fateful day in February 2011, Egyptian society and its political factions have been sharply divided.

On one side are the Islamic parties led by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), including the more conservative Salafi groups. On the other is a myriad of secular groups that includes many liberal, leftist, and youth revolutionary groups.

The unity displayed during the 18 revolutionary days that ousted Mubarak had visibly dissipated by the time Egyptians went to the polls five weeks later to vote in a referendum on whether to hold parliamentary elections before writing a new constitution.

The Islamic political parties reasoned that a new constitution must be written by an elected body that represents the will of the Egyptian people. The secular parties, realising they would be outnumbered at the ballot box, argued a new constitution must be written by representatives of all political stripes outside any claim of a popular mandate – even if legitimised through elections. In the end, Egyptians voted in unprecedented numbers and 77% voted for.

Throughout the tumultuous transitional period, the gulf and mistrust between the two sides have continued to widen.

There have been four main active blocs trying to outmanoeuvre each other in the Egyptian political theatre: the Islamists, the secularists, the revolutionary youth, and the remnants of the old regime. Each group determined its objectives according to its general political overview or narrow interests, and tried to establish its own transient coalition with the others in order to accomplish its goals. The wild card during this political wrangling was the military, which had its own agenda and was able to play these various forces against each other.

What are the objectives of these players?

Feeling empowered by their support in the streets, the Islamists wanted to hold elections as soon as possible in order to set the agenda and dominate the discussion on the writing of the new constitution and future direction of the country. Early on, the Islamists established a tacit understanding with the military in order to establish a smooth transition through popular elections. In return, the military hoped to maintain stability and order while figuring out the new political landscape.

Conversely, the secular factions (including many traditional liberals, leftists, nationalists, some revolutionary youth groups, and the Coptic Christian community) feared a crushing defeat at the polls since they lacked unity and organisation. Their main tactic during this period was to frustrate the agenda of the Islamists, while trying to impose certain constitutional principles without debate.

The main agenda of many revolutionary youth groups was to press for revolutionary demands. These included the purging of Egyptian institutions of elements from the old regime and exposing and isolating corrupt politicians. They applied pressure and maintained a continuous presence in the streets in order to force the military council and its appointed government to hold trials against senior members of the Mubarak regime – responsible for the almost one thousand people killed during the early days of the revolution. But in many instances, the revolutionary youth repeatedly felt betrayed by the Islamists as their demands and actions were often met with either lip service or disdain.

Meanwhile, the remnants of the old regime, known as the fulool (Arabic for remnants) stayed in the background waiting for the right moment to regroup and launch a counterrevolution. The fulool included not only pro-Mubarak politicians from the old regime but also many corrupt businessmen and oligarchs. They knew that if a new order was allowed to be established, they would lose their ill-gotten wealth and possibly face imprisonment.

But the military, which is estimated to control between 30-40% of Egypt’s economy, and has been autonomous with little governmental oversight or accountability for decades, was determined to maintain this status quo and as many of its privileges as possible. It also did not want any politicians or political groups to interfere in its decision-making process, especially its internal financial conglomerates or national security affairs.

So for the entire transitional period, the military council pitted these groups against each other, with each group calculating and selfishly protecting its own short-term interests regardless of the overall consequences on the main objectives of the popular revolution.

Going to vote

With this political backdrop, the Egyptian people have now gone to the polls nine times: to vote on the constitutional referendum in March 2011, four times to elect both chambers of parliament between November 2011 and January 2012, twice to elect a president in May and June 2012, and twice to vote on a new constitution.

Not surprisingly, in every one of these elections, the Islamist position or candidates won. In the presidential elections, despite the overt support of the military council, Egyptian bureaucracy, Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC), and Elections Committee for the fulool candidate, as well as the massive propaganda machinery campaign against Mohammad Morsi, the MB candidate still won in the run-off – though barely with 52% of the vote.

Clashes in the Constituent Assembly

Before this in March 2012, however, the Islamist-dominated parliament appointed the Constituent Assembly (CA) – charged with writing the new constitution – in a heavy-handed way that intensified the mistrust between the two sides. But soon thereafter, the Mubarak-era SCC issued a decree disbanding the body, arguing that members of parliament could not serve on the CA at the same time.

In May, parties agreed to set the criteria for choosing the members of a second reconstituted CA. Though outnumbered three to one in parliament, the secular groups insisted that the composition of the new constitutional committee be one-to-one between the Islamists and secularists. The Islamists begrudgingly agreed to this stipulation in a bid to defuse the crisis.

Soon after, both chambers of parliament appointed a 100-member committee – half selected by the Islamic parties and the other half selected by the so-called ‘civic forces’ comprising of secular and civil society groups. According to the March 2011 referendum, the CA had six months to write the new constitution.

However, in early June, the SCC disbanded the lower house of parliament, claiming the election had illegitimately disadvantaged independent candidates. A few days later, the military council issued a constitutional decree, seizing sweeping legislative and sovereign powers for itself, away from the incoming president to be inaugurated later that month. The SCC refused to criticise this clear power grab.

Within two weeks of taking office, President Morsi attempted to restore the dissolved elected parliament, but his decision was immediately overturned by the SCC, leaving legislative power in the hands of the military council. Morsi appeared indecisive, inexperienced, and weak.

The force of Morsi

But then, in early August, a group of soldiers on the border with Gaza were killed by an undetermined militant group. Morsi seized the opportunity to dismiss several senior security officers. Days later he then cancelled the military council’s decree which had stripped him of his powers, and forced the retirement of most senior military officers in the ruling council. The majority of Egyptians – including many of Morsi’s rivals – supported these momentous decrees, while noisy objections from fulool elements were ignored. Morsi was promptly reassessed and now regarded as a skilled politician who had outsmarted and sidelined the military almost cost-free.

Nevertheless, a corrupt Egyptian bureaucracy, clogged with Mubarak-era midlevel management, remained and taken every opportunity to undermine Morsi. Unfulfilled campaign pledges from Morsi’s first hundred days also exasperated Egyptians struggling with poor economic conditions and deterioration of government services throughout the country.

In October, enraged groups took to the street as another spate of Mubarak underlings received not-guilty verdicts for their actions during the revolution. It became clear to many that the problem was with the Prosecutor General, a Mubarak appointee, accused of obscuring crucial evidence from the political show trials. But when Morsi tried to dismiss him, many senior pro-Mubarak judges rose to the Prosecutor General’s defence and he was soon reinstated.

President under pressure

Meanwhile, the gulf between the Islamists and secularists on the CA widened. The secularists accused the Islamists of trying to impose a religious state. The Islamists denied this, insisting that the new constitution embraced a modern and democratic state with expanded personal freedoms and protections for women and minorities. A perfunctory reading of the draft constitution should silence critics – in its 236 articles, reference to Islamic law is only made in articles 2 and 219. The major bone of contention was in Article 219, which interpreted Article 2, a Sadat-era clause stating that the principles of Islamic law should be the main source of legislation.

The deadline for drafting the new constitution was December 12. As the date approached, secularist members of the CA aired their grievances. Despite mediation attempts, secularists began to withdraw from the CA citing irreconcilable differences.

The secularists were clearly looking to heap pressure on President Morsi. If the CA could not meet the draft deadline of December 12, the process would have to start anew. They also hoped to apply pressure on Morsi in order to increase their representation, otherwise he would continue to preside over a country in political chaos. Rumours were also circulating that the SCC was looking to dissolve (on grounds of flawed constitutionality) both the current CA and second chamber of parliament.

Morsi decree: resolving a dilemma but creating a bigger one

Morsi was facing a constitutional crisis. The politically-motivated rulings of the Mubarak-era court were steadily dismantling all of Egypt’s democratically-legitimised institutions. Should the latest developments come to fruition, Morsi’s presidency could become the last legitimate institution left.

On November 22, Morsi pre-empted the SCC by issuing his own constitutional decree. First, it limited the appointment of the Prosecutor General to a four-year term, a provision which would also be applied retroactively and allowed Morsi to replace the Prosecutor General with a vociferously anti-Mubarak candidate. Secondly, the not-guilty verdicts against former Mubarak officials were cancelled and new trials ordered.

These provisions only disadvantaged the fulool. But another article barring any judicial review of the second chamber of parliament by the SCC was widely denounced as a means to maintain the political advantage of the MB, which together with their Salafi allies, dominates the body. The decree also extended the mandate of the CA for two months, forcing secularist forces to return to the negotiating table. Complementing this article, Morsi banned any judicial review by the SCC on the constitutionality of the composition of the CA.

Finally, and most ominously, Morsi banned any judicial review of this and all his subsequent decisions until a constitution was passed and a parliament elected. He then empowered himself to act as was necessary should he consider the state to be under threat.

Many constitutional experts have argued that this executive overreach was unnecessary since, by definition, a constitutional decree is unreviewable. Additionally, Morsi explained that his decree would only apply to sovereign decisions (such as not dissolving the CA) but not administrative decisions.

No more Morsi!

But secularists refused to accept Morsi’s reassurances. They took the opportunity to unite all groups (including the pro-Mubarak fulool) in defiance of the Islamists. An imminent new revolution was declared, as hundreds of thousands took to the streets once more demanding the fall of the “Brotherhood Dictatorship”.

A new coalition was formed, dubbed the National Salvation Front (NSF), which included two former presidential candidates and numerous secular parties. The NSF charged Morsi with grabbing sweeping powers that were worse than those taken on by Mubarak or the military council. Opposition leader Mohammad ElBaradei even asked the military to take over if Morsi did not back down, and publicly called for foreign powers to threaten Morsi with economic sanctions unless he cancelled his decree.

In the face of continuing protests, Morsi stood firm. Surprising many, especially given the two-month deadline extension, the CA rushed through a draft constitution in marathon overnight session on November 29 and 30. The body approved the draft despite the boycott from non-Islamist elements, and Morsi declared a referendum on it would be held within two weeks.

This further enraged opposition groups still on the streets protesting Morsi’s November 22 decree. Demonstrations escalated, now also calling for the cancellation or postponement of the vote. Eventually, Morsi rescinded much of his constitutional decree but insisted the referendum would still go ahead. It would, however, have to be spread over two days given that many judges, who are required to oversee the vote at polling stations, decided to boycott the event.

After debate and despite some disagreement, NSF’s leaders announced on December 12 that they would participate in the referendum, with conditions, and called on supporters to vote ‘no’.

In the end, the constitution was approved with around 64% of voters backing the charter though turnout was under 33%.

Now, Egypt teeters on the brink of more unrest. Though Morsi currently maintains a veneer of control, Egypt’s future remains uncertain with political tensions ratcheted to fever pitch. Yet many Egyptians hope that cooler heads will prevail, and that this most difficult test for Egyptian political groups since the fall of Mubarak will prove that Egypt’s democracy has matured, is resilient, and will indeed endure.

Expanded versions of this article appeared in Counterpunch here, here, and here.

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