Preventing Politics in Egypt

Why Liberals Oppose the Constitution

An anti-Morsi protester outside the Egyptian presidential palace in Cairo. Asmaa Waguih / Courtesy Reuters

From the moment when Hosni Mubarak fell from power in February 2011, few issues have proved more divisive in Egyptian politics than the writing of a new constitution. Now, even though the formal process is theoretically coming to an end, the battle over the constitution is drawing the country dangerously close to an all-out civil war. The constituent assembly, Egypt's constitutional committee, has approved a draft of the document, which will be submitted to a popular referendum, and probably approved, on December 15. Secular forces, however, oppose the constitution -- its passage would mark a return to politics as usual in which Islamist parties have the upper hand, liberals remain on the fringes, and authoritarianism could reemerge, this time under the auspices of the Muslim Brotherhood.

To prevent the approval of the constitution, secularists have taken to the streets in increasingly large demonstrations, denouncing the constitution and President Mohamed Morsi as illegitimate and threatening massive civil disobedience. If Islamist parties mobilized their followers in response, something they have so far refrained from doing on a large scale, violence would be inevitable. A major flare-up could split the security forces and confront the military with a dilemma: either seize power again, as it did after the overthrow of Mubarak, or sit on the sidelines as the country descends into chaos. Neither option is palatable for the generals, since picking a side and intervening in political squabbles could cause a deep rift within the military itself.

Secularists allege that the Islamists who dominated the constituent assembly pushed through a constitution that does not respect liberal values. Their fears were only further stoked by Morsi's decree that put his edicts above the reach of the courts. In their thinking, only popular protests could save the country from a return to Mubarakism. The Islamists, meanwhile, see themselves as the guardians of the democratic transition. From their point of view, the secularists are mobilizing the institutions of the Mubarak state, particularly the courts, in an attempt to undo

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