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Egypt’s (False) Choice

Bessma Momani on the country’s upcoming referendum to decide the fate of Morsi’s constitution.

By: /
10 December, 2012
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Bessma Momani

Professor at the University of Waterloo’s Balsillie School of International Affairs and a CIGI senior fellow

Since Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi announced his constitutional decree on Nov. 22, there has been dramatic unrest in Cairo. Morsi’s supporters and opponents have been staging their own demonstrations and clashing violently in the streets. Morsi’s decree gave him sweeping powers and was meant to stop the judiciary from disbanding the constituent assembly, which, stacked with Islamists, was writing the draft of the constitution. Morsi’s initial decree extended the drafting time by two months. When it appeared that judges would challenge Morsi further, the constituent assembly finished writing the constitution in a one-day marathon session.

Egyptian people are historically proud of their (albeit decaying) institutions. Unhappy with how the constitution was rushed through and forced upon them, opposition forces came together and demanded Morsi repeal the constitutional declaration and postpone the referendum. At that point, the army, which had been trying to stay out of the limelight since Morsi’s election, weighed in and delivered an ominous warning: If parties don’t “dialogue,” then “dark days” may be ahead. If this were a veiled threat of a coup d’état, it would pit the army against Morsi supporters, who, by all accounts, can come out in the hundreds of thousands when called upon.

Still calling for a referendum on Dec. 15, Morsi met with a second tier of less-prominent opposition forces this weekend and rescinded (or, in actuality, just reworded) the controversial presidential decree. So, now Egyptians have a choice: to vote “Yes” to the constitution in the Dec. 15 referendum and hope that the sloppily worded, patronizing, and, at times, overly ambitious constitution will undergo amendments, or to vote “No” – a choice that the president says would lead to another election in two months for a new constitutive assembly that would write another draft constitution.

These are difficult options to stomach for most Egyptians. The people are disheartened by how their country has quickly swayed into chaos and lawlessness, and by the endless announcements of revolutionaries and government supporters. 

To make matters worse, an opposition movement called the National Salvation Front – a group comprised of prominent figures like Mohamed ElBaradei and Amr Moussa – has called for Morsi to postpone the referendum. Morsi and his supporters have accused the opposition of being a front for foreign intervention, comprised of cultural and economic elites that are in cahoots with the media to bring down the democratically elected Islamist government. To Morsi, the constitutional referendum is the chance to bring true democracy to Egypt and rid the upper political ranks of secular elites.

In contrast, most of Morsi’s opponents want nothing less than his (figurative) head. Their passionate calls for the removal of former president Hosni Mubarak have been redirected completely to calls for Morsi to leave. Morsi’s speech to the nation was another patronizing and demoralizing experience for the people who threw out Mubarak and vowed never to accept another pharaoh. Topping off the instability that Morsi’s moves have provoked is a looming domestic economic crisis, all of which has left Egyptians confused, frustrated, and furious.

My favourite tweet from an Egyptian activist over the weekend sums up the intense uncertainty many are feeling: “if you are not confused about Egypt, then you are not paying enough attention.”

Egypt is in turmoil and circumstances have pushed all sides to extreme and hardened positions. Nothing will convince Morsi that the referendum should not be held, and nothing will convince opposition groups to renew their faith in his leadership. The country is in turmoil and polarized by two interpretations of what ought to be the future of Egypt, leaving Egyptians to choose between despair and disorder – hardly a real choice.

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