In Egypt: When Democracy is not an Option

By the time President Muhammad Morsi issued his Constitutional Decree on November 22, the political battle lines in Egypt had been clearly drawn. One side, mostly comprised the forces of political Islam led by the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). But it also included the conservative Salafi groups such as Al-Noor (Light) and Building and Development Parties, as well as other moderate ones such as Al-Wasat (Center), Al-Hadara (Civilization) and Al-Asalah (Authenticity).

The other side encompassed an array of groups and parties from the far left to the far right: those who represented traditional liberal, socialist, and nationalist forces as well as the Coptic Christian church. Ironically, they also included some of the most active revolutionary youth groups such as the April 6 Movement, as well as powerful remnants of the ousted regime of Hosni Mubarak, whom the revolutionaries had vowed to bring down and put on trial for corruption and repression.

But what brought these various secular groups together was their loathing and deep hatred of the MB, who had given the revolutionary groups plenty of reasons in the past to despise them (e.g. having a tacit understanding with the ruling military council during the transitional period so as not to give them any justification to hold up the elections; overlooking the brutality of the security forces against the revolutionary youth during their peaceful protests; reneging on many past promises such as not fielding more than a third of the seats in parliament yet running for over 70 percent of the seats, eventually winning 43 percent in the lower house and 60 percent in the upper house of parliament; pledging not to nominate a presidential candidate but fielding two contenders, splitting the opposition and eventually winning the presidency; promising to form a national unity government yet appointing a government dominated by technocrats and a handful of MB senior members, etc.)

Understanding the Standoff

But the current crisis must be understood in the context of this bitter conflict that has been simmering for almost two years between these two broad political coalitions. Eventually this clash came to a head in the Constitutional Constituent Assembly (CCA), which was charged with writing the new constitution. Since its inception in mid-June, the secular parties were selected to all five special committees within the CCA. But ultimately they complained that they were outmaneuvered, ignored or dominated by the Islamist forces. Many also protested that the constitution was turning Egypt into a “religious state” ” à la the Islamic Republic of Iran. A frequently cited example was article 219, which explained the meaning of article 2. Article two stated that “the principles of Islamic Shari’ah (Islamic Law) is the main source of legislation,” on which all political groups of all persuasions including the representatives of the Christian groups have long agreed.

But Abulela Madi, chairman of Al-Wasat Party and a member of the CCA exposed this fallacious argument in a December 3 interview with Al-Jazeera Mubashir Egypt. Madi had acted as a mediator between the two conflicting parties when they had reached an impasse on the interpretation of article 2. According to him, they agreed to ask Al-Azhar, the oldest and most regarded Islamic institution in Egypt, to define the term. Subsequently the sixteen-word definition was presented to all the political parties on October 3, at which point, all the representatives of the secular forces including Amr Moussa, Ayman Nour, Al-Sayyed Badawi (most leaders of the secular opposition), as well as representatives of the Christian churches, not only agreed to Al-Azhar’s definition, but also signed a document registering their approval. However, in early November, the representatives of the secular groups withdrew from the CCA in protest, citing the already agreed-upon article 219 as one of the main reasons for withdrawal.

Another staunch objection cited by the secular representatives was the use of the word “state and society” in four different articles in references to certain protections in either economic or social spheres (e.g. women, children, workers, etc.) The secularists objected to the inclusion of the word “society” for fear that certain religious groups would be constitutionally-protected in trying to impose their own conservative interpretation of social mores on society. Although the four clauses were lifted directly from the Sadat-era 1971 constitution, the Islamist forces agreed to remove the “offending” term in three of the four articles, keeping it only in the article that referenced the protection of “the family” as the cornerstone of society. For their part, the Islamist groups assert that they more than compromised in this dispute, while the secularists claim that this was a clear example of how conservative religious groups could abuse this constitutional clause in the future by imposing certain religious or salifist interpretations on the entire society.

As the mistrust between the two sides widened, the secular groups concluded in early November that they could attain a better deal if the current CCA was either dissolved by the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) during its December 2 session as had been rumored would happen, or when the CCA’s six month mandate expired on December 12.

According to leaks by people close to Morsi, as the president was trying to mediate this dispute, he received disturbing reports around mid November in the midst of his efforts to secure a ceasefire agreement in Gaza between Israel and Hamas. According to these reports published in several websites including Al-Taghyeer and Al-Masreyoon, a meeting took place in the office of Murtada Mansour, a prominent wealthy attorney and businessman with close ties to the former regime and Mubarak’s family. Although he was later acquitted for lack of evidence, he had been officially accused last year by government prosecutors of being one of the masterminds of the “Battle of the Camel” at the height of the Egyptian revolution when scores of protesters were massacred in Tahrir Square. He has also been one of the fiercest critics of the MB, a staunch defender of the former regime, and strongly backed its standard-bearer, Ahmad Shafik (the last Mubarak-era Prime Minister and runner up candidate in the presidential elections.)

The reports also cited other prominent individuals at that meeting such as the Nasserite and leftist Hamdein Sabahi, another failed presidential candidate; Mamdouh Hamza, a wealthy secular public figure and a severe critic of Islamist parties; Tahani Al-Jabali a judge on the SCC, who is also a vocal critic of the MB and proponent of the military council during the transitional period; Judge Ahmad Al-Zand, president of the Judges Syndicate in Cairo, who was also a close confidante of Mubarak and a sworn enemy of the MB; an unnamed former colonel in Mubarak’s security apparatus; as well as an unnamed former senior official of Shafik’s campaign.

These reports allege an elaborate conspiracy that was being hatched against Morsi and the MB. It claims that Al-Jabali shared with the other “co-conspirators” that the SCC was going to dissolve both the upper house of parliament (Majlis Al-Shura) and the CCA. It also charged that the secular opposition groups who withdrew from the CCA planned to escalate their attacks on the MB and the draft of the constitution in order to give cover to the CCA impending dissolution. According to these published reports, the plot would have eventually culminated in fomenting a popular unrest against the MB rule, leading many to question the legitimacy of Morsi’s presidency.

What gave this alleged conspiracy life was Morsi’s address to the nation on December 6. In that speech, he hinted at this conspiracy by claiming that he had evidence of several prominent individuals meeting and plotting against the state. He even referenced the address of the office of the prominent attorney where the meeting was held by mentioning the neighborhood of Al-Dokki in Cairo, where Mansour actually maintains his legal practice. Morsi then vowed in his speech that the state prosecutor would soon expose to the public the details of this conspiracy when charges are filed in the near future against the conspirators.

If this report were to be believed, Morsi had then issued his constitutional decree, which gave him sweeping powers on November 22, in order to preempt what he thought was a grand scheme to destabilize the country and undermine its institutions. But his overreaching decree was only discussed within a very tight and close circle around him. Even his vice president, Mahmoud Makki, a former senior judge, said that he only heard about the president’s decree from television news reports.

Undoubtedly, most political parties and revolutionary groups would have welcomed the parts in the decree that dumped the former state prosecutor, a Mubarak-appointee who failed to secure a single guilty verdict against any former regime officials or security officers in the killing of over 1,000 protesters in the early days of the revolution. Many political groups would have also accepted the two-month extension given to the CCA to complete its work amidst dissention in its ranks.

But what the majority rejected was articles two and six in the decree. Article two shielded the president’s decisions from any judicial review, while article six gave the president any broad powers he deemed necessary to defend the nation and ensure tranquility and stability until a new parliament was elected. Initially, Morsi reasoned that this clause was necessary to thwart an unspecified dangerous plot against the state. He also asserted that he would use these powers in the narrowest way possible. He further argued that there would never be stability in Egypt when the elected institutions were repeatedly dissolved by the Mubarak-era Supreme Court, as had been the case with the lower house of parliament and the first CCA. Thus, he argued that he included that clause because he wanted to shield these popularly elected institutions from any further judicial interference.

The opposition strikes and the supporters strike back

There were three kinds of opposition to the presidential decree. The first type considered the assumed extraordinary powers by the president as ill advised, setting a bad precedent, and unnecessary since a constitutional decree by its nature is not reviewable by the courts. This view was represented by former presidential candidate Dr. Abdelmoneim Abol Fotouh as well as other prominent public figures such as author and columnist Fahmy Howaidy, constitutional scholar Tharwat Badawi, and former president of the Judges’ Syndicate, Judge Zakaria Abdelaziz.

The second type of opposition is represented by the traditional secular parties, groups, and individuals who found an opening in their incessant efforts to disrupt and unravel the nascent MB and FJP rule. They denounced the assumed presidential powers and described them as the beginning of a potential fascist dictatorship. For example, former Member of Parliament and renowned secular spokesman, Dr. Amr Hamzawy, tweeted that Morsi was worse than Hitler. Dr. Mohammad ElBaradei, the former IAEA director and chairman of the liberal Al-Dustoor party, called Morsi a new pharaoh and a dictator worse than Mubarak.

The third type of opposition was the fulool or remnants of the former regime that had been lurking in the background waiting for the right moment to regain their lost power. Since the waning days of the revolution, it was not until last spring that they regrouped around Shafik in his quest to become president but were ultimately defeated despite receiving the support of the military council, the so-called deep state, the oligarchs, and spending hundreds of millions of dollars of their illegally gained wealth on the failed campaign (despite the fact that the elections commission allowed for a maximum spending limit of $2 million.)

When Morsi issued his presidential decree the last two groups quickly formed a broad coalition under the name the National Salvation Front (NSF). Its main leaders included Moussa, ElBaradei, Sabahi, Nour, El-Sayyed Badawi, as well as individuals tied to Shafik and the former regime. In a rare display of unity, most secular groups including many youth revolutionary groups, followed suit and joined the NSF. But many critics contend that what united these diverse and acrimonious groups, was their hatred of the MB and the other religious groups. Their common strategy was simply to go to the streets and start an intense public campaign in order to dislodge Morsi and the MB from power, similar to the early days of the revolution against the Mubarak regime.

Therefore, in the week after Morsi issued the decree, tens of thousands of supporters of secular groups took to the streets calling for its cancellation and the dissolution of the CCA. Although they were largely peaceful demonstrations, two young people, ages 15 and 17, died with one person belonging to each camp (secular and Islamist). The response of the Islamist forces was to speed up the passage of the new constitution by holding a nineteen-hour session to pass the 236-article constitution on Thursday and Friday, November 29 and 30.

The secular groups, who had occupied Tahrir Square since November 23, then escalated their demands by including the rejection of the new constitution and calling for the impeachment of Morsi for refusing to agree to their demands and for the passage of the constitution by his supporters.

As the battle in the streets was taking shape, the Islamist groups held their own massive demonstration on December 1 in Nahda Square in front of Cairo University to support the president and the new constitution. The number of people in this demonstration dwarfed those of the secular opposition in Tahrir Square. According to neutral experts, this number ranged from one to two million, some even claiming as much as six million demonstrators nationwide. At night, a massive screen in the square showed the president meeting with members of the CCA and officially receiving a copy of the draft constitution. The president then promptly announced that on December 15 the country would vote on the new constitution in a public referendum. While the demonstrators in Nahda Square roared and cheered in support of this decision, the protesters in Tahrir booed and condemned the same act, a contrast that was shown in a split screen on many TV news channels.

If the objective of the Islamist demonstrators was to show which side had more popular support in the streets, this goal was easily accomplished.  But if the demonstration was to present a moderate face to the public in order to soothe any concerns or fears of impending religious authoritarianism, this goal failed miserably. Many of the chants and speeches during the demonstration simply solidified the anxieties and apprehensions among the secular groups. Many neutral observers such as presidential advisors Ayman Al-Sayyad and Esmat Saif-al-Dawalah saw this as a display of ugly religious fascism. Four non-partisan presidential advisors, including these two, resigned shortly thereafter.

After their enormous show of public support, tens of thousands of Islamists left Nahda Square and by early morning were holding another demonstration in front of the SCC. On that day (December 2) the high court was scheduled to hold its session on the constitutionality of Majlis Al-Shura and the CCA. Morsi’s supporters feared that if the SCC dissolved both bodies, then a constitutional crisis would ensue. Fearing for their lives from the ugly chants in front of the court’s building, the SCC judges angrily suspended their work indefinitely.

The next day the secular forces led by the NSF called for a counter demonstration in front of the presidential palace “Al-Ittihadiyyah” in order to besiege the president in the same manner the judges were besieged by the Islamist protesters. By Tuesday, December 4 thousands of angry demonstrators surrounded the presidential palace demanding the end of the MB rule and the downfall of Morsi. Meanwhile, many FJP and MB offices around the country were also ransacked and torched.

By Wednesday, December 5, Morsi’s supporters arrived by the thousands in front of the presidential palace and by nightfall violence between the groups quickly broke out, resulting in six deaths and over 700 injuries. An FJP official reported that all the dead were MB supporters and that over 1,500 were injured nationwide. MB leader and prominent attorney Sobhi Saleh was badly beaten and accused his opponents of trying to assassinate him. Similarly, secular groups accused the MB of instigating mob violence as its supporters tried to clear the grounds of the secular groups in the area around the presidential palace as they took down their tents. What was incredible during these street scuffles was the absence of the security forces for fear of killing or injuring any demonstrators by the state security units.

In a subsequent address to the nation, President Morsi said that among the injured were 61 people who were shot with either real or rubber bullets by thugs infiltrating the demonstrators. He also claimed that many presidential cars were attacked and torched and that the police subsequently arrested 80 “thugs” from among the protesters who confessed to being paid to shoot the demonstrators and instigate violence. He hinted that the fulool were behind these thugs and vowed that those who were behind the instigation of violence would be apprehended and brought to justice.

The President speaks

Throughout the confrontation, the TV airwaves were flooded with initiatives aimed at defusing the impending explosion. For the first time since the revolution, there is fear of a real danger of civil strife, if not an all-out civil war. The opposition leadership of the NSF huddled at the Al-Wafd Party on the morning of December 6. But by mid-afternoon, their spokesman escalated the situation and accused the MB of instigating violence the previous day. He also vowed not only to insist on their demands to annul the presidential decree and cancel the constitutional referendum, but also to bring down Morsi’s presidency. He then rejected all calls for participation in a national dialogue with the president or his political supporters. The spokesman finally called for massive protests on Friday, December 7 in all squares across Egypt to bring down Morsi’s government.

Meanwhile, Dr. Abol Fotouh held a press conference rejecting some aspects of the presidential decree, namely articles 2 and 6, while affirming the legitimacy of Morsi’s presidency. He called on the opposition to stop settling scores with the MB, reject the infiltration of the fulool among them, and be civilized and non-violent in their opposition. He also announced that his party would reject the constitution because of the concessions given to the military in the draft as well as the lack of real commitment in the constitution to social justice for Egypt’s poor.

Meanwhile, as President Morsi addressed the nation on Thursday evening, December 6, over several thousand thugs of the fulool, in what appeared to be coordinated efforts, attacked and torched several MB buildings across Egypt including their headquarters in Cairo, which further inflamed the MB’s members and supporters.

Morsi’s speech was his first address to the nation covering the most contentious troubles facing his country. He began his speech by rejecting violence and asking all parties to adhere to a civilized way in settling their differences while affirming the right of dissent and peaceful protest. He gave some details about the casualties during the violent confrontations the previous day and revealed that a conspiracy by the fulool has been uncovered and that the general prosecutor would soon expose the extent of the plot to undermine the institutions of the state and spread internal strife.

He also addressed the presidential decree and acknowledged that the opposition to the sweeping powers given to the president was legitimate but that such powers were probably unnecessary since he already had sufficient authority to deal with any instability in the country. He then proclaimed that once a national dialogue with the opposition commenced, he would not insist on article 6 and would be willing to rescind it. As for article 2, he claimed that he only meant to shield sovereign presidential decisions from the courts not the typical executive ones, and that such interpretation was already an established principle upheld in the past by the courts.

However, since the beginning of the crisis, many opposition groups had two main demands: the annulment of the decree and the cancellation of the referendum until a national consensus is reached on the disputed articles of the constitution.  Remarkably, Morsi’s speech addressed both concerns and offered real concessions on both fronts. Initially, Morsi stated upon issuing his decree that it would only be voided once a parliament is elected. That meant the decree would be in effect at least until next spring provided that the referendum on the constitution passed and parliamentary elections were held within two months, as proposed in the new constitution.

But in his speech on Thursday, Morsi declared that his decree would be rescinded once the people vote on the constitutional referendum on December 15, regardless of the outcome of the vote. In other words, he pledged to accede to the first demand of the opposition within nine days, without any concessions on their part. Nevertheless, the opposition argued that this pledge was a ploy because he knew that the referendum would pass by a wide margin and then the decree would become moot anyway.

As for the constitutional referendum, the president offered another carrot to the opposition, calling for a national dialogue between all the political groups to take place in the presidential palace on Saturday, December 8. He said that any concern could be raised by the participants and any item could be placed on the agenda without preconditions. In addition, he stated that he was open to all options on any issue as long as a consensus among the different warring parties could be reached. He further urged all political groups to participate in order to chart a new roadmap for the future of the country. Finally, he vowed that if the constitutional referendum were rejected by the people on Dec. 15, he would not appoint the next CCA as stipulated by a previous decree issued by the military. Rather he called for either reaching a consensus on this body by all the national political groups, or failing that, asking the people to directly elect the next Constitution Constituent Assembly that would be charged with writing the new constitution.

Earlier in the day, Vice President Makki had given a press conference in which he offered what he called a constitutional way to resolve the disputed articles in the new constitutional draft. He proposed that a committee of three constitutional scholars be formed with each side appointing one expert and the third being acceptable to both sides. Then he asked that the proposed language of the ten to fifteen disputed articles be given by both sides to this committee. In turn the committee would study both versions and propose a compromise language to the disputed articles. He then said that all political groups must at the outset vow to accept the outcome of this committee and agree to support it in the new parliament, as it will be offered to the people as amendments to the constitution in a future referendum. In his speech Morsi hinted that he would accept such proposal.

After the speech it became clear that there was a split among the opposition. Ayman Nour from Al-Ghad Party and El-Sayyed Badawi from Al-Wafd Party were open to the dialogue. Sabahi, ElBaradei, the April 6 revolutionary youth movement and some groups affiliated with the fulool rejected the dialogue out of hand and called for further demonstrations and escalation. The NSF did not immediately respond, but Moussa said that he would confer with the other partners.

After the speech, Morsi’s Justice Minister, Judge Ahmad Makki, announced that the president was open to all options if the opposition vowed to participate in the dialogue, including the postponement of the constitutional referendum pending the resolution of the disputed articles provided that a broad national consensus was reached. Makki further presented a mechanism to this process. He said that if a broad agreement were achieved during the Dec. 8 national dialogue between the different parties, the president would be open to issue a new constitutional decree that would postpose the Dec. 15 constitutional referendum in order to give additional time to settle the disputed articles in the current draft.

Accepting the Rules of Democracy

But perhaps many of the secular leaders are wary of this course of action because they know that ultimately they cannot win at the ballot box. One of their prominent spokesmen, Hamzawy, recently said on national TV that he could not trust the judgment of the people because they are brain washed by the Islamist parties. And therein lies the crux of the problem.

Morsi, the MB, and other Islamist parties feel so much confidence at the polls that they always assert that the best way to settle any political differences is to submit to the will of the people. They reason that the rules of democracy dictate that political disputes are always settled at the ballot box. In this particular instance, Morsi publicly asked to let the people decide on the fate of the new constitution, and failing ratification, he called for citizens to elect the one hundred people charged with writing the new constitution.

Meanwhile, the secular forces argue correctly that constitutional documents are living documents that represent the social contract between the state and all segments of society and cannot be subject to the rules of majority and minority voting. While many Islamist groups agree with this notion, they ask how in the end are we going to settle our differences if we cannot reach consensus?

While there are several articles in the constitution that need to be revised and amended, the idea that this constitution lays the ground for the creation of a religious state as proclaimed by some secular groups is not credible. Nevertheless, the Islamist parties, especially the MB, need to be more open and humble in their dealings with the others in order to mollify their fears and concerns. Thus, the best course of action might be to accept Vice President Makki’s proposal to reach a compromise on the few disputed articles in order to bring about a consensus.

As for the secular forces, they need to face reality and accept the will of the people in a new and free Egypt. If their vision and programs for the country are better than the Islamist parties, then they have to convince the Egyptian electorate and start winning elections and referendums. They cannot claim to be pro-democracy and reject its outcome, or hail its principles while undermining its system or circumventing its rules.

Esam Al-Amin can be contacted at


Esam Al-Amin is the author of The Arab Awakening Unveiled: Understanding Transformations and Revolutions in the Middle East. He can be contacted at