Egypt’s Morsi Doesn’t Bend to Protesters on Referendum

The ruling Muslim Brotherhood is confident that its new constitution will pass.

Tear gas is fired into Cairo's Tahrir Square to disperse a protest, Egypt, November 25
Tear gas is fired into Cairo’s Tahrir Square to disperse a protest, Egypt, November 25 (Moud Barthez)

Police fired teargas on Tuesday night at thousands of Egyptians who were protesting outside the presidential palace in Cairo against Mohamed Morsi’s drive to hold a referendum on a new constitution later this month. Press agency Reuters reports that the unrest forced Morsi to leave the palace.

The Islamist president, who was elected in June, ignited a storm of protests with his bid to prevent the Arab nation’s judiciary from derailing the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power. He issued a presidential decree last month in which he shielded both himself and the upper chamber of parliament from legal challenges until new elections can be held.

Morsi also gave the panel that is tasked with rewriting Egypt’s constitution two more months to complete its work, which would have pushed back parliamentary elections to February of next year, but abruptly changed strategy in the face of mounting opposition and called for a quick plebiscite on the law instead.

The present constitution, which stems from Egypt’s military dictatorship, must be rewritten before there can be new elections. The nation’s highest court dissolved the legislature in June after it ruled illegitimate a third of the parliamentary elections that took place earlier this year. Morsi has since ruled as a strongman in the vein of President Hosni Mubarak who was deposed last year in a popular uprising and army coup.

Christian and secular members have stepped down from the constitutional panel, complaining that their voices were not being heard by the Islamist majority. However, it is doubtful whether they can bring the popular pressure to bear that is needed to dissuade the Muslim Brotherhood from going ahead with the vote and consolidating its newfound position of power. The protests against what they describe as Morsi’s powergrab are markedly smaller than the ones that toppled Mubarak last year.

The opposition did find many in the nation’s press on its side on Tuesday. Eleven newspaper withheld publication in protest to the draft constitution’s limits on freedom of speech. Three private television networks announced that they would not broadcast on Wednesday.

The Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, who staged a large demonstration in support of Morsi in the capital on Saturday, are confident that enough members of the judiciary will be available to oversee the referendum, despite some judges staging a boycott. “The crisis we have suffered for two weeks is on its way to an end,” Saad El-Katatni, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, told Reuters.

Egypt’s military, which forced Mubarak to resign last year and governed the country on an interim basis until Morsi was elected, doesn’t seem inclined to intervene in the political brawl. It didn’t withdraw its representatives from the Constitutional Assembly when other secular members left. Nor did it protest when Morsi retired dozens of officers, including Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and General Sami Hafez Enan, the army’s chief of staff, in August.

In the draft constitution, the army maintains control over its budget and foreign policy which suggests that it reached an understanding with the Muslim Brotherhood on the future division of power in Egypt. That, or the generals are biding time while Egypt descends into deeper economic and political turmoil under the stewardship of an organization that challenges the very composition of the Egyptian state as it has existed since Gamal Abdel Nasser assumed the presidency in 1956.