Diary of a constitutional crisis

Just over a week before my scheduled arrival in Cairo to research the constitution-drafting process, President Morsi triggered perhaps the most significant crisis since the fall of Mubarak.

When I first decided to focus my doctoral thesis on constitutional drafting in the Arab Spring in October 2011, it seemed marginal to the main conversations the tumultuous year had offered up, a legal specialist’s interest in the paperwork of astonishing and theory-shattering revolutions. 

Yet since the summer the constitution has taken centre-stage, as those who struggled to overthrow dictators in 2011 find that the task of building the aims of the revolution into a constitutional document is never an easy one.  Just over a week before my scheduled arrival in Cairo to research the drafting process and whether those involved in the overthrow of Mubarak felt their aims were being represented in the process, President Morsi triggered perhaps the most significant crisis since the fall of Mubarak.

Since President Morsi gave himself sweeping new powers and immunity from judiciary oversight on November 22, announcing a referendum on the new constitution, the splintering between Morsi and the judiciary – who shortly went on strike as the national judicial union announced its decision to boycott the referendum – was further entangled by the outpouring of popular protest, with hundreds of thousands of protesters mobilising in Tahrir square and outside the Presidential palace, with skirmishes between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and those opposed to Morsi’s actions peaking with the deaths of six and injury of over 600 on Wednesday.  A diary as the events unfold:

Friday, December 14

The day before

The morning before the referendum is due to begin, and another protest Friday: there is heightened police presence throughout Heliopolis and army presence around the cordoned-off Presidential palace.  Pro-Morsi supporters announced a ‘million-man rally’ from 10am at the Rabaa Al-Adawiya mosque.  Meanwhile opponents are planning to converge on the Presidential palace from four different locations this evening.   It was unclear whether the report that state radio could ‘not play romantic songs’ was true but in any case all ears were on the television discussions of those supporting the constitution and the opposition. 

My landlady explained to me where the polling station was, that neighbours planned to go in groups to avoid violence; preparations for security around the polling stations are underway.  In the afternoon there were reports of violent clashes between different protesting groups in Alexandria, and the use of tear-gas.  It has also been announced that international election monitors will not oversee the referendum as it has been organised at such short notice – this has further encouraged comment by those opposed to Morsi, on Twitter, that the referendum itself is not legitimate.  Nonetheless, voting starts tomorrow.

Thursday, December 13

Early voting

Much of the newspaper coverage on Wednesday focused on the previous nights’ protests – the Molotov cocktails and the skirmishes at the Presidential palace.  It was also the day of the early voting for Egyptians living abroad, after early voting was postponed from last Saturday.  Around 150 Embassies outside of Egypt opened to allow the approximately 6.5 million Egyptians living abroad to vote in the election.  A Skype call to Egyptian friends in Jordan, however, gave the impression that they were similarly nonplussed by Morsi’s seemingly arbitrary actions over the past weeks; moreover, television reports that many judges are still not willing to participate in the ballot count, making it unclear at this stage whether the early voting will end today. 

In the wake of the rival protests on Tuesday, the army military chief General al-Sissis has called for ‘unity talks’ for ‘the sake of Egypt’, which Morsi will attend, and may lead to further splintering in the opposition.  Much discussion is currently centred around whether the opposition groups will protest at ballot boxes on Saturday.   On Thursday the state media announced that the early voting abroad had gone ahead successfully, with more than 500,000 voters participating in the referendum abroad.

Voting on the referendum in Egypt itself is now due to take place over two weekends, December 15th and December 22nd, in order to make allowance for the fact that many judges will not participate in the referendum.  It is unclear what progress or dialogue is being made with the judges at this stage – all media reports are simply that ‘most will not participate’.  Meanwhile, in addition to the television and radio adverts, loud-speaker broadcasts made by vans of opposition groups driving around the residential areas of Cairo encouraging citizens to vote ‘no’ can now be heard around the city.  The protests this week have been more contained than the violence of last week –  while the judge investigating last week’s violence has been reinstated, it is hoped that this Friday’s protests will be calmer.

Tuesday, December 11

Electoral districts

Framing it in terms of ‘public interest, and for Egypt to successfully end the current transition and move on to the building of constitutionally-founded institutions’, President Morsi today amended a 1956 law so that voters  can’t cast their ballot outside their electoral districts.  National newspapers noted that this may have been an attempt to appease the judges who have recently returned to work after their strike over the referendum, because allowing voters to cast their ballots outside of their electoral districts would have created extra work for the judges in terms of creating lists for those who are not registered in a given district.  The Egyptians I spoke to did not think this would have a significant practical effect on many voters, but there was some prickling at the sense that Morsi was, yet again, making up the rules of the referendum as he goes along. 

In addition, the head of the Egypt referendum committee, Zaghoul El-Bakshi said he’d step down if there is more violence at protests before or during the referendum.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the new military powers of civilian arrest, human rights organisations have condemned Morsi’s move.  Amnesty International stated that it ‘set a dangerous precedent’, while Human Rights Watch stated that the text could have stipulated that the military’s jurisdiction would have been limited and every civilian will be referred to a civilian court but he chose not to, and that Morsi should be ending the military trials of the SCAF era rather than expanding them.

Staff at my work left early in preparation for the protests – this was going to be a significant demonstration, the first since the military powers of civilian arrest were introduced, and the last before the early voting began on Wednesday.   Stories had begun to circulate early in the day of masked attackers lunging at a sit-in in Tahrir square, injuring several protesters, followed by footage of Molotov cocktails being thrown later in the day.  As many thousands gathered in Tahrir and the Presidential palace, there seemed to be some relief that the military was genuinely focused on keeping the protesters apart, as the opposition protesters congregated in Heliopolis. 

Pro-Morsi supporters gathered in Nasr City to assert the legitimacy of the constitution and encourage others to vote ‘yes’ in the referendum.  As fears of the troubling influence of the heightened military powers subsided, discussion turned to the divisions that have been appearing in the opposition since the weekend, particularly debates over whether to boycott or vote ‘no’ in the referendum.

Monday, December 10

Maintaining order

This morning the increased military presence is palpable, worrying and much-discussed – the army have entirely sealed off the Presidential palace with large concrete blocks, pushing back the protesters. In an act that has clearly hit a raw nerve with citizens in a country where the legacy and possibility of military rule hangs heavily, President Morsi gave the military powers an instruction to ‘maintain order’, including the power to arrest civilians. 

The tense dynamic of last week’s protests between opposition and seemingly co-ordinated Muslim Brotherhood violence is now made more fraught by the heightened presence and powers of the military – it is hard to imagine that the dynamic will subside over the following week.  In Heliopolis there were chants of “no military rule”, and the inevitable further comparison that Morsi is hijacking the revolution for his own ends. 

The military has been granted these powers until the November 15 election, which opposition parties maintain they oppose – the scheduled protest for Tuesday will be the test of whether the increased army presence does not in fact exacerbate tensions.  

Confusion seems to reign elsewhere from the President’s official messages today – not least with Morsi’s Facebook announcement that he would retract the tax hikes he had announced only a day before. These had been planned as part of a programme that the country must put in place in order to be eligible for an IMF loan, due for approval on the 19 December.   Rattled by the November 22 decrees and the sense of ‘betrayal’ by Morsi, these tax hikes were hardly well-timed – the sales taxes were due to hit a number of products essential to Egyptian citizens’ daily lives, such as mobile phone services.  Hikes to electricity have already come in, as my landlady has firmly reminded me, just before a short power-cut over the weekend. 

Morsi’s backtracking today on the new tax hikes – for now – didn’t bring relief so much as confusion.  “Don't be so happy! #Morsi didn't retract tax hikes. He's just waiting for the constitution to pass and then he'll screw u” read one comment on Twitter; another, sarcastically, “go stable government go” – as Morsi looked both pitiless in introducing the taxes and weak in backtracking so soon.  At the shop on my street the owner joked that we should all be buying cigarettes now in case Morsi changes his mind again and the prices go up tomorrow. 

The issue of the hikes are also a reminder of the complexity of the problems Egypt faces even if it manages to extricate itself from the constitutional crisis – the economy has barely looked more grim; the stock markets plummeted 10% after Morsi’s decree back at the end of November and the road ahead would have been difficult enough without the constitutional crisis, given the toll the revolutionary period took on economic stability, combined with long-term high levels of unemployment.

In all the talk of the political process being hijacked, the undercurrent fear remains that the economic recovery could similarly be hijacked by a kind of shock doctrine, and the IMF conditions loom over the more immediate constitutional dilemmas.  In the meantime, tomorrow promises another protest, a mobilisation of force by the opposition to demonstrate that Morsi’s moves will not go unchallenged – and, this time, an army with the powers of ‘civilian arrest’ is in the mix.

Sunday, December 9

Sunday morning hangover

Morsi announced late on Saturday night that he would rescind the extended powers his November 22 move granted him, so that the new constitutional proclamation would not protect the President from legal challenges.  There was initially a sense of at least a partial victory that the protesters were being heard, cheers from apartment blocks in my neighbourhood that felt that the President had, at least, budged an inch. 

However, any hope that this would halt the deadlock quickly faltered – the referendum, Morsi made clear, is still scheduled to go ahead.  The National Salvation Front quickly declared the move by Morsi ‘meaningless’ if the referendum is to continue as planned. 

The National Salvation Front called for a continuation of protests, with the next demonstration planned for Tuesday, while the group central to the fall of Mubarak, the April 6 Youth Movement, criticised Morsi for ‘duping’ the people with a charade of a compromise.  Moreover, even though Morsi has now given up his November 22 powers, the decisions he took during this period will not be annulled, notably the dismissal of the general prosecutor.

A Sunday morning hangover in the city gave rise to the opinion that Morsi had achieved much of what he envisaged with the constitution, in terms of keeping the drafting-process as closely in his own hands with little consultation from divergent voices as possible: human rights lawyer Gamal Eid has been widely quoted saying that, “the battle is not about voting "No" on the draft constitution…[t]he battle is about exposing the falseness of this constitution and the way it was drafted."  

But the Sunday night protests were more subdued than those of the preceding week, and there did appears to be some melting of the impasse between the regime and the judiciary, as the end of the two week judicial strike was announced by the judicial inspection department on television.

As protests calmed on Sunday, the divides played themselves out online, with continued evidence, and allegations, of online sabotage, such as of the April 6 Youth Movement’s site.  Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the press strike, frustrations about press control continue as the very public resignation of Egypt’s head of state broadcasting this week underscores.

Saturday, December 8

Tension palpable

The tension in Cairo is palpable, as many speak of the betrayal of Morsi and ‘military’ tactics of the Muslim Brotherhood, while official statements, social media and public debates warp with misinformation, particularly the official positioning of those who disagree with the Muslim Brotherhood as being ‘pro-Mubarak’. 

By yesterday, reports emerged of parts of the country declaring themselves ‘autonomous’ from the Muslim Brotherhood, a sense that the post-revolutionary accord was rupturing nationally.  It is clear that the showdown between the Muslim Brotherhood and the New Salvation Front is far from over and the state newspaper has reported that Morsi would soon use armed forces to help ‘keep order’. 

The immediate question now is of the referendum, whose scheduled deadline looms, and while the overseas early-voting referendum has been moved to Wednesday it is unclear whether these votes would be considered valid if the judiciary is refusing to oversee the referendum as a whole.  The ‘dialogue talks’ Morsi called for in his speech on Thursday are reportedly being held this evening with several opposition groups, although the National Salvation Front has stated that it will not participate. 

Friday, December 7

Protest day

Friday has long been protest day in Cairo, and after the week’s events, between Morsi’s speech and the scaling of the barriers erected outside the Presidential palace, there was a sense throughout the city that this weekend would make or break the course of the events.  The election committee head Ismail Hamdi announced that early voting for Egyptians abroad on the draft constitution would be delayed, the first indication, in the eyes of the New Salvation Front and other Morsi-opponents, that their demands are being listened to.  The early voting, which was due to begin on Saturday, is now scheduled for Wednesday.  However, opponents to Morsi’s November 22nd position are insistent that this cannot change the opposition’s position.

El Baradei, who has been a figurehead of the opposition to Morsi since the November 22 decree, spoke on Egyptian television to articulate the opposition’s demands – a commitment to annulling Morsi’s immunity from judicial oversight, and halting the constitutional referendum until the crisis between Morsi and the judiciary is resolved. 

On his Twitter account, El Baradei also called for opposition groups to resist dialogue with Morsi on compromising on these demands. Protesters gathered early on Friday and remained until the early hours, breaching the Presidential cordon.  Although the skirmishes have been less jarring than on Wednesday, El Baradei’s sentiment of a ‘dialogue boycott’ seems to have hardened the lines between Morsi’s supporters and the opposition. The early voting for Egyptians abroad is now scheduled for Wednesday – it remains to be seen whether this will not be modified further as the deadlock continues.

Thursday, December 6

Waiting for Morsi

There was something slightly unreal about waiting for Morsi’s speech today – the inevitable echo of Mubarak’s last defiant stance days before his downfall in 2011, the night in which the word ‘Ceausescu’ started trending on Twitter, a peculiar hiccup of history in which the smell of hubris was so strong that global group-think gurgled up the name of a dead Romanian.  Morsi’s speech was disappointing on several levels.  Beginning several hours after its scheduled start of 6pm, although he called for ‘dialogue’ the substance of his position meant that the opposition were unmoved – Morsi both insisted that he would keep the sweeping powers he granted himself in November, and that the constitutional referendum would go ahead as scheduled on December 15. 

Inevitably, the speech ignited further protests, and a deepening of frustration at Morsi’s unwillingness to compromise. The army, who have been largely absent from the mounting damaging dynamic between what looks like coordinated Muslim Brotherhood violence and protesters, have now erected barriers outside the Presidential palace.

The army’s role in the constitutional crisis has been largely sidelined by the main deepening fracture between Morsi and those opposing his November 22 powers and proposed referendum.  While a large question-mark over the summer was to what extent the draft constitution would retain or break with Egypt’s institutional legacies of a strong army, the role of the army is less pressing in people’s minds now than issues of Presidential power and the article defining the principles of shari’a as a principle source of legislation.  The draft constitution grants a larger level of civilian oversight to the army but does not severely threaten the institution – as such the army’s position this week as been peripheral to the main dynamic between Morsi’s supporters – a level of coordination by Muslim Brotherhood protesters that has taken many by surprise – and opposition demonstrators such as the New Salvation Front.

For their part, the Muslim Brotherhood posted pictures on social media of their headquarters set on fire as protests continued into the early hours of the morning, in what they have termed a ‘terrorist’ act. Increasingly discordant narratives are being generated by both sides on social media and in public debate, with the Muslim Brotherhood condemning the police for not intervening in the ‘terrorism’ of the protesters, who they position as threatening peaceful democracy, while those opposed to Morsi have – as well as the inevitable ‘Pharoah’ and ‘Mubarak 2.0’ references – been documenting the attacks of the Muslim Brotherhood on protesters, positioning them as ‘militia’-like, co-ordinated attacks by trained agents.

Wednesday, December 5

Invitation to dialogue

100,000s protested at the Presidential palace yesterday – and finally Vice-President Makkmoud Mekky proposed in a press conference that there be dialogue on the disputed articles of the draft constitution. He says he is confident the crisis would soon abate. But he has disappointed those disaffected by the developments of the last week by insisting that the proposed constitutional referendum will continue as planned.

Newspapers ran again today, after yesterday’s press strike provoked by the lack of press freedom in reporting on the constitutional crisis. But today’s media coverage, and daily conversation, is dominated by the deadlock.  Wednesday evening has seen the largest and most tense protests since the constitutional crisis began, articulating a high level of alienation among those who mobilised for the downfall of Mubarak and what they feel about Morsi’s actions. The February 2011 slogan, “The people demand the overthrow of the regime” is once again being chanted, a cry which also received ideological reworking by Muslim Brotherhood protesters on December 2, chanting “the people want the implementation of Shari’a”. 

The return of force has come as a shock to many, largely in terms of the level of coordination of the violence, as Muslim Brotherhood militias attacked protesters demonstrating in front of the Presidential palace, causing five deaths and over 600 injuries.  Anger over what opposition protesters have been describing as ‘fascist tactics’ by Muslim Brotherhood militias is compounded by footage circulated on social media and by evidence that journalists were being targeted in the attacks.  The opposition, which has long been fractured between dozens of parties, appears to be converging as coordination of the protests develop, under the umbrella of the National Salvation Front, established in the wake of Morsi’s November 22 proposal. 

Protesters are particularly incensed that Muslim Brotherhood voices such as their Twitter feed are representing opposition to Morsi as ‘pro-Mubarak’ and trying to frame dissent as anti-revolutionary.  The return of Tahrir as a locus of political debate also reveals just how much has been learnt in this space since the February 2011 protests, not least in terms of safety coordination amongst protesters.

About the author

Heather McRobie is a novelist, non-fiction writer, and former co-editor of openDemocracy 50.50. She is completing a PhD on the 2011 Egyptian revolution at Oxford University and holds an MA focusing on Balkan studies from the University of Sarajevo. Her latest book Literary Freedom: a Cultural Right to Literature was published in December 2013.  Follow her on twitter @heathermcrobie