After working with Egypt’s president, Mohammad Morsi, to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas last month, President Barack Obama reportedly came away impressed by his fellow former university professor’s pragmatism and “engineer’s precision.” But whatever the Egyptian president’s intellectual gifts, a good memory is clearly not one of them. After having barely eked out in a victory in last June’s presidential election, with a significant assist from liberal and left-leaning revolutionaries who saw Morsi’s opponent as a throwback to the old regime, the new president has thumbed his nose at his erstwhile allies and his promises of democracy. On Nov. 22, he issued a decree granting himself extraordinary, unquestioned authority, and last week his allies in the constitutional assembly rammed through a draft constitution that includes expanded presidential powers, protections for the military, and a highly illiberal social agenda.
Egypt’s liberals—often rightly maligned as hapless and uncoordinated—have seized the opportunity presented to them by Morsi’s overreach, and surprised everyone with a series of massive protests in Tahrir Square. And elsewhere in Egypt, clashes between opponents of the president and his supporters have resulted in at least two deaths and the torching of several Muslim Brotherhood offices. But on Saturday, Morsi’s allies reminded us why the Muslim Brotherhood is so often referred to as Egypt’s most organized and popular force, convening a gargantuan rally of their own in front of Cairo University. Estimates of the size of the Islamist crowd—much of which was bussed in from outside of the city, and which at one point reportedly chanted, “Oh Badia [the Muslim Brotherhood’s leader], you command us and we obey!”—varied. The Brotherhood’s political wing claimed that more than 2 million people turned out to support the president but independent observers pegged the number at closer to 200,000. After the demonstration, hundreds of Islamist activists besieged the country’s constitutional court to prevent the judges of that body from attempting to countermand the president’s actions. The man who once promised to be the president of all Egyptians has proven uncommonly adept at dividing them.
If ever there was a time for Egypt’s liberals—really a coalition between genuine liberals, socialists, and some of the less objectionable Mubarak loyalists—to seize the momentum from the Islamists, this is it. A National Salvation Front, led by progressive politician Hamdeen Sabahi, former International Atomic Energy Agency Chairman Mohamed ElBaradei, and former Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, has been formed, and has begun gearing up for acts of civil disobedience. The liberals have demanded that Morsi withdraw his decree, invalidate the draft constitution, and convene a new constitution-writing committee that is not controlled by Islamists. Judging by his past behavior, the president is unlikely to be responsive. Rather, Morsi intends to have this new Islamist-crafted constitution endorsed by the public with a hasty referendum on Dec. 15. And though there is some chance that the judges will throw a wrench in Morsi’s plan by refusing to oversee the constitutional referendum, Morsi will almost certainly circumvent them. Thus, liberals are soon going to find that they have no choice but to try to convince Egyptians to vote no in the upcoming referendum.
That will be hard. The conventional wisdom holds that Egyptians generally vote yes in referenda, although, admittedly, most of our evidence for this claim comes from the rigged polls from Hosni Mubarak’s days. But more importantly, there are large portions of the constitution that most Egyptian voters will find unobjectionable—specifically its moral and social provisions. In order to beat back the document, liberals are going to have to suspend their distaste for the religious conservatism that is the Brotherhood’s bread and butter, and instead focus on the ways that the president and his new constitution promise to re-establish the kind of autocracy that Egyptians thought they had overthrown in 2011.
To be sure, the new constitution’s cultural and religious provisions are retrograde. For example, for years, Islamists had argued that Article 2 of the prerevolution constitution, which made “the principles of Islamic law the main source of legislation,” wasn’t strong enough. The new constitution preserves the old language, but now contains a new article, that defines the “principles of Shariah” in the very strict terms of Muslim Sunni jurisprudence. Liberals fear that seventh-century Islamic punishments for things like theft, adultery, and blasphemy are not far behind. At the very least, liberal and non-Muslim parliamentarians unschooled in the finer points of Sunni legal scholarship may find themselves at a distinct disadvantage in the lawmaking process. And though Article 81 of the new constitution does declare that “citizens rights and freedoms are inalienable and cannot be suspended or reduced,” it then goes on to say that these freedoms can only be practiced “as long as they don’t contradict the principles set out in the section on state and society in this constitution.” This is a long way of saying that Egyptians are free, as long as they don’t violate the government’s interpretation of Islamic law.
Similarly, whereas the old constitution contained an article prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender (among other things), the new constitution removes any mention of women as a protected class. Instead, it views women primarily as mothers (or potential mothers), declaring in Article 10 that the state will help “reconcile the responsibilities of the woman toward her family and her public work.” And though the constitution contains the requisite language guaranteeing freedom of speech, it places religiously defined limits on that speech. For example, Article 44 prohibits anyone from insulting prophets of the Abrahamic faiths, leaving undefined what precisely constitutes an “insult.” And Article 48, which regulates freedom of the press, says that the press is free only as long as it doesn’t contradict the principles on which the state and society are based—meaning the principles of Shariah.