In Egypt, there are fears the country is slipping backwards toward autocracy and military rule. President Mohammed Morsi has ordered the Egyptian military to maintain security at state institutions. And he’s given the army additional powers to arrest civilians. The move comes ahead of a national referendum on a controversial draft constitution set for Saturday. Opposition leaders are rejecting the referendum. And they’re calling for big demonstrations on Tuesday.
Monday, people are hoping for the best.
At a sidewalk café, Egyptian soccer fans sit in front of two TVs and cheer their team on to victory. It’s a big win for one of the most popular Cairo clubs. But for a country trapped in a political quagmire, it’s something everyone can celebrate, said Aly Salem.
The 76-year-old playwright and columnist said Egypt is in a tough spot. People are being asked by their Islamist president to vote on a constitution that’s fundamentally flawed. Salem explains in artistic terms.
“It looks like an author was forced to write a song, then a composer was forced to make the music of it, then the players are obliged to play it, led by a very stubborn and cruel maestro,” Salem said with a chuckle.
For several days running, supporters of President Morsi have been holding demonstrations on the outskirts of Cairo. They say that the bulk of Egypt’s private media outlets are anti-Islamist. And that the demonstrators who’ve come out against Morsi are part of a foreign-funded plot to revive the old regime.
“They are gathering, paying money for people, trying to take Mohammed Morsi off the chair of the presidency. We will support him and we will stand with him,” one man said. “Because he’s only looking for the sake of the country,” a woman chimed in. “He’s not looking for power, he’s not looking money, he’s not looking for anything. He’s only looking for the sake of the country.”
But Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood organization that supports him have lost the trust of many Egyptians. That includes a handful of the president’s own advisers, who’ve resigned in protest.
One of them is Essam al-Amir. He said he quit his post as head of Egyptian State TV late last week after Brotherhood supporters attacked demonstrators at the presidential palace.
“Yes, Morsi was democratically elected,” he said. “But the president’s actions since then speak volumes. For example, the way he used a presidential decree to push through a draft constitution and impose a referendum. These moves show that Morsi has become a true dictator.”
The big problem with the draft constitution, said Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch, is that it’s not representative of society. The document was heavily influenced by Islamists, while input from secular and Christian Egyptians was absent.
“The political significance of Morsi having put this text to referendum, a text that was passed in 17 hours by a constituent assembly where there was no church representative, where all of the liberals had walked out, that is a very dangerous political message ultimately, especially given the fact that Egypt has a problem with sectarian violence. And I think it’s led to the current political crisis that we’re in right now,” Morayef said.
She said the current draft constitution puts limits on human rights, women’s rights and the freedom of expression.
Egypt’s main liberal, secular opposition group – the National Salvation Front – agrees.
At a chaotic news conference Sunday night, opposition leaders said they rejected Saturday’s referendum. And they called for more mass demonstrations on Tuesday. Spokesman Hussein Abdel-Ghani said Morsi and his followers have pushed Egypt to the brink of civil war. And they will have to face the consequences.
“We respect our brothers in political Islam, but they are not respect the liberals, the Marxists, the Nasserites, they are not respect the will of the Egyptian people, especially the will of Egyptian youth, who I think displayed by every single means, they are going to sacrifice their lives for the freedom,” Ghani said.
What makes the current standoff so ominous is that the Muslim Brotherhood also said that this is a fight for survival.
Supporters of Mohammed Morsi say the opposition is trying to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood. The people have decided, they chant. And God’s Shari’a law is their choice.
Morsi is not alone. He’s the president of the republic.