Egypt Protests Explained: New Morsi Constitution is a Wake Up Call For Egyptian Democracy


Amidst growing protests over Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s recent decree granting himself sweeping new powers, the assembly drafting the country’s new constitution suddenly announced that it is accelerating its time frame and will vote on a final draft in the coming days. The document that has emerged, though, is far from what was imagined by many Egyptians and pro-democracy advocates in the West.

As time runs out on the current process, domestic opposition and international actors need to think seriously and strategically about how to build a real, inclusive, and democratic Egypt in the face of an Islamist minority that currently controls most levers of power.

The constitutional assembly is dominated, almost exclusively, by the Brotherhood and other Islamists. Nearly all of the secular members, comprising about 25% of the original body, walked out after it became clear that their views would not be taken seriously. This has resulted in a series of draft constitutions that place the Brotherhood’s conservative vision of Islam at the very foundation of the new state in ways that seriously threaten the rights of women, minorities, and free expression.

The Islamists, however, do not represent the views of the majority of Egyptians, and a constitution which excludes the legitimate input of secular groups will lack legitimacy. President Morsi and his Freedom and Justice Party won a plurality in the first election, benefitting from the fractured nature of the more liberal and secular opposition. This sectarian disunity among groups wishing to challenge Morsi’s aggrandizement continues to be an important factor holding back the development of a more healthy and representative multi-party environment. Absent a well organized opposition that can voice a realistic and cogent alternative vision – and institutions through which they can express it – it will be difficult to counterbalance the ascendency of the Brotherhood, even if they do lack a deep well of popular support.

President Morsi and his Brotherhood allies clearly hope that the fast-tracking of a new constitution will not only codify their favored version of Egyptian government, but also diffuse the mounting discontent and protests in the street and among the Egyptian judiciary. While the clearly non-representative nature of the constitutional process and the final draft document would seem to cast doubt on this assumption, it’s important to appreciate the relative cunning that Morsi has displayed in neutralizing various sources of potential resistance. Nathan Brown, one of the most prominent western scholars of Egyptian governance, describes the strategic buy-offs imbedded in Morsi’s recent decree:

By careful timing and a series of carrots for various actors, Morsi may have outmaneuvered any opposition. Internationally, he has just won plaudits for his role in ending the fighting between Israel and Hamas; that likely offers him a bit of insulation from international criticism and some vague domestic capital for showing Egypt’s centrality. Offering cash to the revolution’s victims and retrials for their attackers seems designed to placate street activists. Non-Islamist forces in the Constituent Assembly are seeing one of their fundamental demands — an extension on the clock — met. And an obvious source of opposition — the judiciary, whose role is dramatically evicted from the transition process — may be a bit confused on how to respond. After all, it is leaders of the “judicial independence” movement from within their ranks that appears to be leading some of Morsi’s charge.

The current draft constitution has been described by some analysts as a fundamentally “rights-reducing document.” This view is certainly shared by many Egyptians, though it remains unclear how much agency that opposition has to effectively alter it. The international community in general and the United States in particular could play a positive role in aiding this process by stepping up to advocate forcefully for a more open and inclusive process that reflects the true intentions of the revolution. Western actors cannot expect to alter the ideology and preferences of the Muslim Brotherhood, but the Ikhwan have proven to be fairly pragmatic in the way they respond to incentives. This provides hope that various carrots, such as the $4.8 billion IMF loan currently under negotiation, could be effectively tied to reforms in ways that pull the ruling FJP toward more responsible leadership and institution building. The development of more organized opposition and the deployment of effective international pressure, though, are medium-term goals at best. Given the fast-tracked timeframe of the current constitution, the most important consideration of the moment may well be the process for future constitutional amendments.