Egypt is once again in agony and may continue so. We are back to 25 January 2011, a new round for the Egyptians to struggle for their freedom and human rights. This time they are demonstrating against a theocratic non-military ruler who won the presidency by a small margin, if not under results disputed by his opponent General Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister. Hundreds of thousands including secular women and others wearing hijab, some of them from the Muslim Brotherhood supporters, demonstrated outside the presidential palace on 5 December. They were protesting the Islamists-backed draft constitution that was approved overnight by an illegally formed assembly, and rejecting President Mohamed Morsi’s new constitutional declaration that gave him undisputed power, calling for his resignation.
The demonstrations spread in many cities in the country when news media reported that President Morsi decided to rush the referendum on the draft constitution without giving the people ample time to understand it and the experts to review it. In his declaration, President Morsi sought to suspend temporarily the authority of the Egyptian Supreme Constitution Court (SCC) from rulings that might block the referendum.
The situation became worst after President Morsi, as reported, ordered the military to quell the demonstrations and maintain security in the streets to allow the vote. According to media reports, the military generals were willing to do so in order to maintain stability in the country and to protect their own interests. The Brotherhood confronted the protesters with violence, beating and torturing them, including two Egyptian diplomats, to force them to reveal which country paid them to revolt. Eight people were killed, some of them from the Brotherhood, and hundreds were injured as reported.
Instead of heeding to the opposition’s demands, President Morsi, in a televised address to the nation on 5 December, fulminated about conspiracies by foreign elements and called for a dialogue with the opposition. This was rejected by the protesters, and Mohamed Al-Baradei, acting as the coordinator of the secular opposition, said that the president’s refusal to postpone the referendum and failure to stop the bloodshed made his authority lose legitimacy and closed the door for any dialogue. After the bloodshed, American media reported that United States President Barack Obama called President Morsi, not to reprimand him, but to build a rapport with Morsi with an attempt to persuade him to offer some compromises to his opponents in order to earn their trust. Actually, the Obama administration should share some of the blame. By softening his tone in his conversation with Morsi, Obama had virtually encouraged him not to heed demonstrators’ demands to establish democracy and stability in Egypt.
When leaders of some of political parties got out of line and met with the president, he rescinded that part of his declaration whose Orwellian language gave him unlimited power to protect the revolution, but asked the opposition to submit their amendment to the draft to be considered by the new parliament set to be elected early 2013. This flawed idea was immediately rejected by the demonstrators. In a meeting in Washington between Tom Donilon, President Obama’s national security adviser, and his Egyptian counterpart, Essam Haddad, Donilon conveyed to the latter, as reported, President Obama’s emphasis on the need for Egypt to respect the rights of all Egyptians.
Obama’s approach to the Brotherhood is a break in the US policy towards Islamists. Since 11 September 2001, the US had been fighting so-called Islamic terror and continued its support to the autocratic government of former president Hosni Mubarak and the military who replaced him. It did not occur to President Obama’s government that the Muslim Brotherhood would claim the Egyptian revolution for itself, and could manage to replace the military to promote its Islamic agenda, which made the Obama government become inclined to make an approach to the Brotherhood in order to protect its interests in Egypt and the Middle East. It seems that Obama’s advisers and some Western analysts were not sure whether Morsi would act as an Islamist or as an authoritarian.
That so-called Islamic terror was interpreted by many American writers as “them against us”. Thomas Freidman, the American columnist of the New York Times, was a proponent of this slogan. He attributed the enmity of the Arabs towards America and the West to their frustration with their autocratic rulers, and to their poverty, lack of education and jealousy of the United States’ prosperity and high technology. Suddenly, the Arab uprising drove him to change his mind. In a column in the New York Times, titled “It’s Not Just About Us”, he urged the Obama government to help the Arabs, especially Egypt, an anchor in the Arab world, in education and development, to establish democratic institutions with protection of freedom of the press and speech, and to take a “radical new approach by us and them”.
Freidman was right about the Arabs’ enmity towards the US. But the reason was not only what he mentioned above. It was mainly because the US supported the Arab dictators who were responsible for their malaises and whom it supplied with arms that were used to kill protesters, instead of money to improve the quality of life for millions of Arabs. The US also did nothing when those dictators ruled their people for long with iron fists.
The West has always been suspicious of Islam, even before 11 September. As the late Edward Said, the former professor of English at Columbia University, a renown Christian Palestinian American writer and a former contributor to Al-Ahram Weekly, wrote in his book, Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (1987), “It did not seem to matter that Muslims considered Mohamed a prophet and not god. What mattered to Christians was that Mohamed was a false prophet, a sower of discord, a sensualist, hypocrite, an agent of the devil.”
The problem is not Islam itself, but it is those Muslims who interpret its rules. What makes Islam is so despised by the West, is that all Islamic groups do not believe in a system of the rule of law and constitutional rights. They give the ruler a wide margin of authority and prohibit any opposition to his acts. Criticism of the ruler is un-Islamic, they say. President Morsi himself, being a product of the Brotherhood, showed impatience with criticism by some journalists and television personalities, whom he referred to criminal courts. The Salafis tend to take the law in their hands and punish violators of Islamic rules. Such acts have continued a case of chaos in Egypt that had spread after the deposing of former president Mubarak with no attempt by the then ruling military or President Morsi’s government to secure the country. This has increased instability and insecurity in Egypt that is causing the deterioration of the economy.
The Brotherhood was trying to use the new constitution to serve its interests. Yet the Constitution and the election of Morsi as president have not been recognised by some Islamists. Mohamed Al-Zawahri, the leader of the Salafi Jihadist group, an ultra conservative movement, and the brother of Ayman Al-Zawahri, who succeeded bin Laden in leading Al-Qaeda, was reported recently in Al-Masry Al-Youm to reject democracy as it gives sovereignty to the people, while God is the actual sovereign of the universe. He purported to condemn the Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda as contradicting Islam and rejected President Morsi’s inclination to govern under a constitution, considering him only a president, lacking actual religious legitimacy, meaning he was not Khalifa.
After President Morsi captured the presidency, and notwithstanding his promises to give the Egyptians their freedom and equal treatment for all, the Brotherhood were quick to try to impose their Islamic agenda that does not recognise tolerance or plurality. They and other Islamic groups follow strict interpretation of the Sharia, and are in discord among themselves in many issues that makes it difficult to establish a real democracy, thus denying the people quality of life.
The new constitution, which was rushed to be approved in one night by the Constitutional Assembly dominated by the Brotherhood and other Islamists after the withdrawal of the secular and Christian members, is full of loopholes and vagueness, and does not allow adequate protection of freedom of speech, religion, women’s equality, or worker’s rights and social services. Also, Coptic, Catholic and Protestants Churches, as reported, expressed their worry that their members would be discriminated against under the new constitution. The new constitution followed the old one in declaring in Article 2 that the principles of Islamic Sharia are a main source of law, but it elaborated in Article 219 that those principles include the rules, jurisprudence and sources accepted in the Sunni sect which would discriminate against the Muslim Shia minority and non Muslims. Truly, the draft constitution recognises Islam, Christianity and Judaism as divine religions, thus discriminating against the Bahaais and others, but there is no guarantee that citizens’ rights would be respected.
For the first time since the first Egyptian constitution was enacted in 1923, the new constitution includes a provision that would allow trying civilians before military tribunals for crimes that are considered harmful to the Armed Forces which was a standard policy when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was ruling the country. The constitution did not define those crimes or who has the authority to do so which could lead to the understanding that the Armed Forces would have this authority, making it the victim, the prosecutor and the judge at the same time.
The new constitution imposes Islamic traditions on families. For example, its Article 10 makes the family the core of the society based on religion, morals and citizenry. But it is not clear which religion the draft is pointing at. Since the constitution recognises the three divine religions, would that means that families that belong to each of those religions use their own traditions, morals and traditions of citizenry? Or since Islam is the state’s religion (Article 2), should all Egyptian families follow Islamic traditions and morals? It seems that non-Muslim families must be based on Islamic principles and morals and citizenry which is an outright discrimination against them.
Furthermore, family and society traditions in urban areas are not the same in the country side, especially in Upper Egypt.
It seems the constitution is giving the state a role in balancing women’s obligations towards family and public work. It could be expected that married women would be confined to the home or permitted to work part time on condition that they fulfil their marital obligations. How about men’s obligations?
Article 6 of the draft prohibits political parties to discriminate in their membership for reasons of sex, origin or religion, but there is no reference to banning discrimination based on sex in other instances.
The stress in the constitution on Islamic rules and tradition seems to give new power to Muslim religious authorities such as the Al-Azhar, the world first Islamic university, and to certain scholars of the Brotherhood.
Not only was the constitution boiled, in the wordings of Ibrahim Eissa, a television programme host, but voting in its referendum was marked by long lines and low voter turnout. Just 30 per cent of eligible voters cast their ballots in the two rounds. The constitution was approved by 63.8 per cent of those who cast ballots.
The voting result was contested by the opposition for being marred by violations. They demanded that the election authorities rule on those allegations before declaring the results. However, the outcome means that the Brotherhood lost the people’s confidence and President Morsi’s position would be shaken. The low turnout would raise doubts about this document that is suppose to represent the actual consensus of the people who were aspiring to democracy, and would affect the legitimacy of the new government and the new Parliament.
So there is a real division in Egypt. In the opinion of Amr Hamzawy, a political scientist who was interviewed recently by the New York Times after the end of the referendum, the vote against the constitution was a measure of the opposition’s growing influence. “We have a majority that isn’t big, and a minority that isn’t small.”
The final results of the two rounds of the referendum would not end the severe enmity between the Brotherhood and the secular revolutionaries especially after the bloodshed that occurred when the demonstrators were surrounding the presidential palace. Many of the demonstrators, as reported, vowed to continue their protest if the draft constitution is passed. On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood will turn more violent if the opposition continue its demonstration. So we are no longer in a situation of us against them.
Some Egyptian commentators recently professed that it was unwise from the demonstrators to call for President Morsi’s resignation, as he was elected by the people and should not be removed unless he committed a crime, no matter how gross his mistakes were. Principally, this is true. But what Morsi had done was against universal human rights and a breach of his promises that made him lose the peoples confidence in the absence of a system to impeachment him as in the United States. In the latter country, the constitutional process is so enmeshed in the hearts of Americans that a coup d’état by the army is unimaginable, but revolution could happen by the people who are the real sovereign.
Now that the Muslim Brotherhood is in power, it is envied by its rivals, the Salafis and other Islamic groups, and a new struggle between those groups is developing and between them and the secular mainstream of the majority of the Egyptian people. So we should not blame the West only for our malaises. It is no more us against them. Civil war is looming. Secularists against Islamists, and Islamists against Islamists. We are definitely on the path of us against us.
The writer is an international lawyer.