Egypt’s President Mohammad Mursi has successfully rammed a rushed constitution through a two-stage country-wide referendum, but any sense of achievement will be short-lived if he does not reach out to the opposition. Like the previous constitution, this one declares Islamic law to be a main source of legislation, but it also adds a new article, No 219, which defines those legal principles as the established schools of Sunni Muslim scholarship. This worries many secular and liberal Egyptians since this article can be interpreted in all sorts of ways, allowing future radical groups to totally change Egypt.
The deep divisions over the new constitution were summed up by two headlines yesterday morning, when the dominant state-owned newspaper, Al Ahram, announced that “The people sided with democracy”, whereas the largest independent newspaper Al Masry Al Youm, reported what happened as “Wholesale violations”. The backlash from liberal and secular leaders has already started, as they seek to test the ruling Muslim Brotherhood’s majority in the country. Mursi’s authoritarian tactics have worried the entire spectrum of Egyptian politics, ranging from the left-wing, secular and liberal groups, through all of Egypt’s minorities of whom, the Christian Copts are the largest. The only group that is happy is the military with whom the Muslim Brothers have formed a close alliance.
So, in addition to dealing with the position of Sharia in the constitution, the opposition should also object to the extraordinary immunity that the new constitution grants the Egyptian military. Mursi has reached a deal with the Hosni Mubarak-era generals, who still run the armed services, under which they agree to protect his Islamist government, while Mursi protects the Egyptian military from legal and parliamentary oversight, engraving its autonomy in the constitution. Two examples of the military protecting its own interests under the new constitution are the military budget not being subject to parliamentary review and the minister of defence having to be a serving officer. This level of favouritism leads to cronyism of the worst kind and fuels popular discontent with Mursi’s government.