Osama Al Sharif
Published — Wednesday 12 December 2012
Last update 12 December 2012 3:47 pm
President Muhammad Mursi’s latest attempt to defuse a crisis of his own making has failed. Late on Saturday he issued a new constitutional decree, annulling a previous decree that gave him sweeping new powers while fixing a date for a nation-wide referendum on a draft constitution. Most of his opponents rejected the new proclamation and demanded that he postpones the referendum until a new draft is adopted.
Less than four months after he was elected in Egypt’s first post-revolution presidential poll, President Mursi finds himself ruling a deeply divided country. His own legitimacy is being challenged. Millions of Egyptians in Al-Tahrir Square and at the gates of the presidential palace have called for his departure. Bloody clashes between his supporters and opponents last week resulted in eight deaths and hundreds of injuries.
The Islamist president may have miscalculated when he issued his controversial decree on Nov. 22. He says he wanted to protect the country’s two remaining elected bodies — the Constitutional Assembly and the Shura Council or Upper House of Parliament. But by barring any judicial review of his decisions he had stepped on a political landmine.
His opponents, liberal and nationalist parties, came together under the umbrella of the National Salvation Front while millions of Egyptians took to the streets to protest what has been dubbed as Egypt’s new pharaoh. The Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, saw the emerging coalition and protests as attempts to overthrow an elected president. Their political figures came out in his support accusing their opponents of executing a conspiracy by holdovers from the defunct regime. In no time the country became polarized.
The Islamists responded by organizing their own demonstrations and were able to deploy millions of Mursi’s supporters in front of Cairo University. In
the rally Islamist figures attacked the president’s detractors and called on Mursi to “purify” the judiciary and the media from Mubarak’s holdovers.
But while the president showed no signs of backing off, he finally invited political forces to a national dialogue in his palace. The National Salvation Front rejected the invitation because the president would not annul his decree or cancel the planned referendum. Those who showed up for the meeting were his supporters and independent figures. The last ditch attempt to save the day in the form of a new decree has failed to satisfy the critics.
The referendum will take place on Dec. 15. The judges, who have been on strike to protest what they saw as a direct intrusion by the president in their authority, have now accepted to oversee the referendum. A leading independent Islamist figure and former presidential candidate, Abdel Munem Abu El Futouh, has called on his supporters to head to the polls on Saturday and vote no. Other opponents, led by Dr Mohammad ElBaradei, nationalist leader Hamdeen Sabahi and former Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, have vowed to “fight” to prevent the referendum from taking place.
President Mursi may have compromized the integrity of the draft constitution while attempting to save it. If Egyptians approve the draft, which legal experts say it suffers from grave loopholes, then its legitimacy will be questioned by Mursi’s opponents. And if they reject it then it will be a heavy blow to Mursi and the Islamists. In addition a no vote will deepen the political crisis that began with Mursi’s Nov. 22 controversial decree.
His victory last summer was no less controversial. He had won by a small margin against a Mubarak era candidate, Gen. Ahmad Shafiq. The liberal and nationalist forces decided to vote for Mursi so that Shafiq would be ousted.
The president’s critics reminded him recently of his vow to them, on the eve of the presidential elections, to rule by consensus and to keep channels open with all political streams. They say he has broken his promise and that his latest decisions point to a scheme to carry out a hidden Muslim Brotherhood agenda. Most of his advisors have resigned in the past few weeks.
President Mursi could have chosen a different path to bring Egyptians together. His unpredictable behavior recently reflects a growing mistrust inside the Muslim Brotherhood leadership of competing political forces. For 80 years the movement has been attacked and persecuted by successive regimes. Now that it found itself at the helm it is showing signs of arrogance and fear of competition.
It is unfortunate that President Mursi could not be the Arab version of Nelson Mandela, the man who came out of many years in prison to launch the most important national reconciliation process in modern history.
Mandela’s tolerance and wisdom have spared South Africa the plight of civil war between the black majority and the white minority. Mursi and his movement could have taken that route to bring Egyptians together. The deep division that runs through Egyptian society today is now Mursi’s bitter legacy.