In the wake of a series of significant regional developments and moves by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi that have raised the specter of a power grab and sent a united opposition back into the streets in huge numbers, the country’s long awaited constitution is now one step closer to law.
Egypt’s Constituent Assembly completed its draft of the country’s constitution on Friday, a document months in the making and the subject of intense controversy. While the draft constitution was rushed to completion and agreed upon by the body it must now undergo a referendum by Egyptian citizens before it becomes law, a prospect that will face staunch resistance from liberal and secular segments of society in the wake of President Morsi’s decree which severely eroded already tenuous support from outside of his party.
The muted response from Washington to Morsi’s decree, a move that gave him sweeping powers, is troubling to say the least. As a country with a long history of authoritarian rulers and a dysfunctional system of government Morsi’s regime is now looking more and more familiar. With the country’s constitution now ready to be taken to vote, the risk of fragmentation and open conflict between the government, judiciary, and the opposition is now more real than it has ever been.
The Constituent Assembly, the body charged with drafting the country’s new constitution in the wake of the revolution, has faced opposition from secularists, women, and liberal political figures since its creation. But, Morsi’s move to concentrate power in his office and to remove judicial oversight of the presidency is aimed more at protecting the Assembly from meeting the same fate as the country’s Muslim Brotherhood dominated parliament which was dissolved by Egypt’s courts in June.
It is not clear at this point whether the document will be passed by referendum. The effect of the decree has cemented the opposition into the most cohesive block experienced since the revolution, however, the large segments of society that brought Morsi to power and represent his base are more likely to view the president’s concentration of power in the way Morsi has explained it to Egyptians: as a way to preserve the gains of the revolution from the remnants of the regime, the “weevils” who largely inhabit the country’s courts.
For this group the conflict between the judges and the country’s new leaders is nothing new. Just as the courts handed down weak punishments to top authorities charged with killing protesters during the revolution and later upheld a ruling to dissolve the country’s parliament, Islamists feared that their gains would be eroded by an entrenched court system whose link to the former regime and the traditional enemy of the Islamists opposition is very real.
For supporters of President Morsi and the Constituent Assembly the political calculus has favored taking controversial steps to protect the draft constitution which it was feared would be undone by the courts, over the possibility of the document failing to pass a referendum. In the wake of a prominent role in securing a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza and strong U.S. support, Morsi’s position is secure enough to take such a controversial move and he and his advisers must feel that a referendum is more likely to be successful than awaiting the decision of the court.
For now, the U.S. has remained largely silent on the matter, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton telling the media through her spokesperson that she was not warned of Morsi’s intention to issue the controversial decree. In fact the U.S. administration understands that the political system in Egypt is marked by a strongly divided set of institutions and that the conflict between the new regime and the old has the potential to wreak just as much havoc on the stability of Egypt as does the conflict between secularists and Islamists. Further, with an IMF loan on the table, the concentration of power in the hands of a moderate figure like Morsi may be preferable to those who would like the see the country’s economy stabilize and the relationship with Israel to remain in full force.
However, by failing to take a strong stand against Morsi’s grab for power, the U.S. has severely damaged its credibility among liberal figures in Egypt and risks providing tacit support to a new constitution that provides fewer protections of civil liberties than the 1971 constitution of Mubarak. The United States must above all else support a political system that breaks from the hyper-centralized presidency that has dominated Egypt’s political history for decades. This is the institution that brought us Mubarak and the institution that is now being co-opted by the country’s new ruler. While some have already termed Morsi the new Mubarak after the move, we know that it takes decades to make a Mubarak. It takes years in power and most importantly it takes the support of the U.S.