Friday, December 7, 2012

Constitutional Crisis

The main reason for the gap between these last couple of posts and the previous one is that daily life simply has become too normal for me to make aspects of it particularly interesting to anyone else. You may have noticed on the news over the past couple of weeks that this is no longer the case; we have returned to the kind of unpredictable excitement that greeted me when I first arrived here about fifteen months ago. Though I will talk about it, I must direct you to better equipped and more directly involved news agencies for any detailed analysis. The caveat to all I say is that this isn't sound or trustworthy analysis, just my opinions based on the limited observations I make living here.

This latest trouble all started a couple of weeks ago with President Mursi's decree that was meant to deal with the challenges of the judiciary to his government. There are two things to note here. The first is that I'm pretty sure that this had nothing to do with his role in the Gaza ceasefire. Mursi is fairly calculating, and won't have done something like this off the cuff just because he was on a diplomatic high - especially as the Gaza ceasefire really didn't make much difference to the way he was viewed at home. Those who liked him previously continued to like him, and those who didn't, didn't. Secondly, one of the key parts of the decree - removing the public prosecutor - is something that he has been trying to do for months, and in which he has been blocked by the judiciary. Both the senior judges and the public prosecutor are hangovers from the old regime; getting rid of them, or curbing their powers, had been something that a lot of people had wanted for a long time.

What really brought people out on to the streets is the way in which he brought about this little victory. He destroyed the judges' power to block his removal of the public prosecutor by removing their power to overturn any of his decrees (someone he can do as, under the interim constitution, in the absence of the parliament, his decrees are legislative). Of course, that removed the only check that had been acting on his powers, making him a dictator, albeit, so he says, a temporary one.

Making matters worse was the publication of a draft constitution. There had already been trouble in the constituent assembly. Judges were preparing to rule on its legality (it is viewed by many liberals as unrepresentative, due to the way in which it was formed). Being dominated by Islamists, it was making no attempt to write a particularly balanced constitution anyway, and this had prompted almost all its liberal and Christian members to boycott it, though they weren't enough to prevent it from reaching quorum. After Mursi's decree, it reportedly engaged in a mammoth sixteen hour session, and produced a draft. This has come under predictable, though not entirely unjustified attack from those who boycotted the assembly for its provision of rights and equalities (or rather, lack of provision). In my view, that isn't the key problem. The bigger problem is that it mined previous constitutions heavily, and so produced one that is a gift to authoritarian rule. It is excessively long (236 articles), and in crucial parts vague and contradictory (for example, insults are forbidden, but freedom of thought and expression are guaranteed). As far as I can see, it is more important that it makes sure that the government can't force the courts into interpreting vague articles in their favour (what's to stop them from interpreting a political attack from a rival presidential candidate as an insult?), than to make sure that all western rights and freedoms are included. I also fear that the opposition will lose the referendum in a couple of weeks’ time, because they will be focussing on the fact that it is illiberal, when a pretty conservative country will probably be more concerned with the threat of a new dictatorship.

Whatever the result of the constitutional referendum, it is now clear that Egypt has become a very divided country. It has been moving in this direction for a while. Various (liberal and/or Christian) friends have been engaging in foolish talk of the need for another revolution. (One is compelled to ask: if the previous revolution, started by people like you with a united populace behind you, didn't produce a result that left you confident in the future of your country, why do think that another revolution, with a divided populace, will produce a better outcome?) It remains to be seen whether, should the constitution pass in a demonstrably free and fair referendum, things will settle down again. My entirely uneducated hunch is that it will pass (I'd guess 60-40); however, it is perfectly possible that protests will continue on the basis that the process that led to it illegitimises the outcome. Some friends speculate, perhaps hopefully, that if it doesn't pass the embarrassment will force Mursi out. I don't see that happening: if it doesn't pass, he keeps the powers that he granted himself in this decree. Without a parliament, there is no obstacle to his legislative will. And unless he is forced from power by protests of the scale that toppled Mubarak, there is no reason for him and his supporters, members of an organisation that has sought power for eighty years, to surrender it.

Whether Mursi departs or not, and whether the constitution passes or not, there seems to be a high possibility of some violence. My dentist, having kindly performed root canal, followed up by a suggestion that I leave the country. At this stage, and on this information, I think that would be premature. But it goes some way to showing just how nervous people are.

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