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Egyptian Roundabout

It’s not even a square—it’s really more of a roundabout. And in person, Tahrir Square appears dramatically smaller than the sweeping images broadcast across the globe documenting the unprecedented demonstrations that toppled the seemingly unshakeable Mubarak regime.

Since then, aside from functioning as a traffic chokepoint and a tourist attraction, Tahrir Square has continued to serve as a beating heart of both dissent and euphoria. It’s a space that has been claimed—and shared—by young, secular revolutionaries calling for an end to military rule and bearded Salafists denouncing the exclusion of their preferred candidate for the presidency. This past June, on the day that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was officially declared president, celebration consumed the circle, concealing the brewing political, ideological, and religious differences over how to shape and steer Egypt’s new trajectory. For a moment, the circle fit into the square.

Did President Morsi intend his November 22 constitutional declaration to awaken the undecided electorate—voter turnout was under 50 percent during the first round of presidential elections, prompting a run-off—or inflame the already aggrieved members of the opposition? Could this be the beginning of a new “revolution”?

Given the thousands of people returning to Tahrir and the growing discontent over the economy, national security, and civil liberties, Morsi may have inadvertently provided his critics with a temporary unifying device: rallying to defend the rule of law. Seeking to end the drawn-out process of creating Egypt’s most important document—a process that featured prominent withdrawals by liberal, leftist, and Christian members of the assembly drafting the constitution—Morsi took matters into his own hands, granting his decrees and laws immunity from judicial review until the adoption of a new constitution and the election of a new parliament.

In a déjà vu blurring of the lines between the executive and the judiciary, Morsi’s declaration also states that no judicial authority can dismantle the Constitutional Assembly or Shura Council, the upper house of parliament. In a vaguely worded clause, the president has also claimed the right to take “all necessary measures” against “danger that threatens the January 25 revolution, the life of the nation, national unity, or safety,” opening the door to potential abuse. To placate his critics, Morsi removed the reviled Mubarak-appointed Prosecutor General Abdel Maguid Mahmoud and also reopened investigations into the martyrs killed by the former regime during the Tahrir uprising.

Deep Fissures

The ensuing chain reaction led to the fast-tracking of the constitutional process, both to ease public discontent over Morsi’s declaration and to preempt an anticipated decision by the Supreme Constitutional Court over whether to dissolve the assembly drafting the constitution. The remaining majority Islamist members of the beleaguered Constitutional Assembly voted on November 30 to approve the draft charter’s over 230 articles. “I am saddened to see this come out while Egypt is so divided,” said Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei. The newly formed National Salvation Front (NSF)—an opposition coalition led by ElBaradei of the Constitutional Party, Hamdeen Sabbahi of the Popular Current , and Amr Moussa of the Conference Party—claims that the Assembly is “trying to impose a constitution that is monopolized by one trend.”

Among its contentious aspects, the current document maintains in Article 2 that “principles of Islamic Sharia are the principal source of legislation.” Article 10 affirms that a woman, but not a man, must reconcile her “duties” “toward her family and work.” Article 198 keeps open the military tribunal option by establishing that “Civilians shall not stand trial before military courts except for crimes that harm the Armed Forces.” Although Morsi’s declaration gave the Assembly a two-month extension to complete its work, a referendum on the constitution is now scheduled for December 15.

With the continued erosion of fear on full display, casualties, clashes and renewed protests have occurred across the country, including in front of the presidential palace in Heliopolis, where thousands of pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators have assembled. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Cairo headquarters and regional offices witnessed reported arson attacks. Banners read “Down with the pharaoh president!”

Addressing the nation on December 6, Morsi declined opposition demands to revoke his declaration and postpone the referendum amidst escalating violence, instead inviting them to a “comprehensive and productive dialogue.” As of this writing, the NSF, along with the 6th of April Youth Movement, which played an influential organizing role in the revolt against Mubarak, have declined the offer, urging Egyptians to continue with civil disobedience.

Although the constitution drafting process has been fraught with delays and walkouts, the fact that such a public debate over the shape of laws governing a country of 80 million people has managed to even take root should be seen as one of Egypt’s—and the region’s—more encouraging developments in its convoluted political transition. But Morsi’s heavy-handed declaration, even if transitory, sets a negative precedent for the emergence of future, organic debates rooted in striving towards consensus. In a case of Orwellian doublethink, the president and his allies believe that holding elections will restore the nation’s equilibrium—never mind the fraught political-security environment in which they occur. According to Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa Director of Human Rights Watch, “Egypt’s president now has more power than last year’s military rulers who used their position to violate human rights.”

Unlike his slick presidential campaign ads painting a highly Utopian image of a united Egypt under his leadership, Morsi’s latest move further exacerbates the political divide, drawing a more obvious line between the Islamist camp (the Muslim Brotherhood and ultraconservative Salafist Nour Party) and everyone else. Reflecting on how the fissure has brought unlikely allies together against the Islamist bloc, leftist activist Hossam al Hamlawy told Al Jazeera, “It is true that there is a mish-mash of different groups together in Tahrir, and the felool [remnants of the old regime] are mobilizing there too…There are definitely people within the opposition camp who are willing to coordinate with them, and this has created an unease with others.” For now, protesting against Morsi’s declaration and the constitution brings them together, but doesn’t sustain a movement.

The Revolutionary Process

While news headlines neatly attribute the current political impasse to Morsi’s power grab, perceptions of how Egyptians view the revolution also matter, and these are in turn connected to their visions for the new constitution and the larger question of where the country’s transition is headed. On the one hand, the term “revolution” has become a normal part of the public discourse. But on the other hand, the actual implications of dismantling one order and replacing it with another are difficult to discern. Depending on whom you ask, the “Revolution of January 25” either happened, never happened, is still underway, or has been hijacked and derailed by the new Brotherhood-dominated political establishment.

While working in the Upper Egypt city of Assiut during the one-year anniversary of this “Revolution,” I witnessed a small demonstration of mostly young people and some middle-aged professionals organized by the 6th of April Youth Movement calling for the “continuation of the Revolution” and the “end of military rule” under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Less than a few miles away, another, more cheerful gathering of families waved Egyptian flags to celebrate the holiday. “The revolution has yet to succeed,” argued a university student at a traditional coffee shop. He raised questions about his job prospects following graduation. “Change takes time,” he conceded, wistfully staring at the street traffic. Whether in Cairo, Alexandria, Mansoura, or Port Said, such a divide still reverberates throughout much of the country, going well beyond a friendly disagreement over semantics and striking at the crux of the matter: Who should drive policy in the new Egypt? And what should it look like?

Morsi and his supporters justify his declaration as necessary to save the “revolution” from counter-revolutionary forces. But is it counter-revolutionary to withdraw from the Constitutional Assembly over ideological differences, or counter-revolutionary to endorse the same neoliberal economic model that helped (among a mounting list of other grievances) inspire Egyptians to overthrow Mubarak? Which is more insidious? And which is more revolutionary?

Even after the protestors clear Tahrir, the question remains over whether the same movements that converged and evolved nearly two years ago can cooperate to achieve comparable goals, rooted in elevating the rule of law and creating a more just and democratic Egypt. With the repeat of parliamentary elections set for next year, how much of politics will continue to be played out in the streets or else confined to the ballot box? In between these two dichotomies lie the larger issues facing President Morsi and Egyptians—crafting a constitution that protects the rights of all; ensuring socially responsible economic policies addressing poverty, illiteracy, and inequality; and ending regressive laws that promote assaults on basic human rights. Referring to the current Islamist rebirth in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and Palestine, Hussein Agha and Robert Malley inquired, “Which is the detour, which is the natural path?” The same should be asked about the road back to Tahrir.

Farrah Hassen, the 2008-2009 Carol Jean and Edward F. Newman Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, observed the first post-Mubarak parliamentary and presidential elections in Egypt from 2011-2012.

This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus.

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Farrah Hassen is a Syrian-American writer and filmmaker based in Washington DC.

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