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Why Egyptian power grab may not be what it seems

The recent news reporting about Egypt’s political crisis creates the impression the country has fallen into the hands of a band of ultra-conservative mullahs intent on forcing women into niqab (full covering) and chopping off light-fingered hands. Egypt is clearly in turmoil — but the current troubles are more complex than opposition to a supposed radical religious takeover.

The protests have been centred on opposition to the country’s proposed new constitution, planned to go to referendum this Saturday. But much of the protest is now also explicitly opposed to the continuing presidency of Mohammad Morsi. Given his election in June in what was widely regarded as a free and fair process, this begs the question of the Egyptian opposition’s commitment to democratic processes.

It is important to keep in mind that Morsi’s opponents are not just minority liberals and leftists, but also the Western-backed but locally less popular Mohamed Albaradei, along with key players from the previous regime, such as former foreign minister Amr Moussa.

When Morsi decreed last month that he would not allow the country’s Mubarak-appointed courts to overturn the new constitutional process, he was accused of seizing "dictatorial" power. His actions followed the court’s sacking of the popularly elected Parliament in June.

Morsi said he would rescind his order limiting judicial power once the constitution was passed, but has since bowed to public pressure and rescinded it before the constitution has been voted on. For an aspiring "dictator", Morsi has given up such power surprisingly easily.

Oppositions politicians decry what they say are the draft constitution’s limits on freedom, along with some claims that it will impose shariah law. Yet, after an initial boycott, the body that drafted the constitution comprised a range of politicians, Christian and Islamic religious leaders, trade unionists, the judiciary and members of the armed forces and police.

While the draft constitution is less than perfectly liberal, it is much more so than the constitution it replaces.

The main limitations to the constitution appear to be those required by the still-powerful military. There is no evidence, however, that it is any more Islamic than the previous constitution, and in some senses it is less so.

The draft constitution does reduce the power of the president, placing more power in the hands of the Parliament, creating provisions against torture and detention without trial, and guaranteeing freedom of movement. As with the previous constitution, it says Egypt’s laws are based on the principles of Islamic law.

If the basis for the legal code is now more in accordance with Sunni Islamic thought, the draft constitution also explicitly protects Judaism and Christianity. Its anti-discrimination provisions are, though, less clearly worded.

A main concern with the constitution is that it has not ended potential military trials of civilians, which is clearly a concession to the all-powerful military. The newly proclaimed powers of arrest, announced yesterday by President Morsi, can also be seen as reflecting the army’s power behind the scenes.

It is legitimate for many Egyptians to want a more liberal constitution that extends already enshrined rights. But there is also the question of balancing the claims of the country’s different constituencies including those, such as the army, that might otherwise have made a grab for total power.

As for the Muslim Brotherhood, it is of course explicitly based in Islam, but reflects a strong social welfare orientation. President Morsi’s new tax increases were intended to help stabilise Egypt’s failing economy and pay for social services; his stepping away from those probably necessary taxes in less than 24 hours demonstrates he is a long way from having "dictatorial powers".

Egypt is being rocked by competing political forces, the agendas of which are sometimes less than transparent. But the claims being made against President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood bear closer examination before being uncritically repeated.


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