Egyptians spent the end of the year in the same way as they did the beginning, standing in long queues and casting their votes. The year began with the election of the upper house of a new parliament, and ended with a referendum on whether or not to endorse a new draft constitution.
The intervening period was one of bitter anger and widening political division, and the sense of national unity evidenced in a revolution that brought down Hosni Mubarak became something of the distant past.
|For the first time in decades, a democratically elected parliament was formed in Egypt [GALLO/GETTY]|
The constitution should have been the crowning achievement of a nascent Egyptian democracy; instead it became little more than a political football in ongoing confrontation between those who support President Mohamed Morsi and those who oppose him.
The angry debate in the referendum campaign was more about the how the draft constitution was drawn up, rather than its content. And many of those who queued for hours on a chilly winter’s day to cast their votes were left pondering how it all came to this.
The year began in buoyant optimism as, for the first time in decades, a democratically elected parliament was formed – the promise of government by the people apparently realised.
The big winner in the parliamentary election was the Freedom and Justice Party formed in April 2011 as the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood itself had been banned since 1954 and Mubarak was on the record as saying it would never form a political party while he ruled. He was right, watching from a hospital under police guard as his sworn enemies came to power.
The biggest electoral surprise was the strong showing of ultra-conservative Salafi movements, in particular the Al Nour Party. This gave movements rooted in Islamist ideology a massive majority within parliament, while the secular parties found themselves very much in the minority.
It was not long before parliament came into conflict with the Supreme Military Council, the body that had been wielding executive power pending the election of a new president. But any thought that it might present a united front dissolved in intense wrangling between parliamentary factions about the election of a constituent assembly to draw up a new constitution. Secular forces in parliament insisted the religious parties had used their majority to stack the constituent assembly with those who would follow an Islamist agenda – and expressed the fear that the draft constitution would serve religious movements rather than the country as a whole.
Then another player entered the increasingly fractured debate: The constitutional court found deep technical infringements in the parliamentary election process, and recommended the dissolution of the body. As executive authority, the Supreme Military Council willingly complied.
Still reeling from the reality that their votes had been effectively nullified, the Egyptian people were called to go to the polls again – this time to elect a new president. And the divisions within the country were increasingly accentuated when the run-off was effectively between forces of the new Egypt and those of the old. The candidate of the now politically dominant Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi, came up against Ahmed Shafiq, a Mubarak-era cabinet minister.
The secular moderate forces in Egypt were facing the dilemma of whether to vote for a declared Islamist or for a relic of the past that most hoped the revolution had left behind. Ultimately Morsi gained a narrow victory by less than four percentage points and the Muslim Brotherhood had effectively completed its staggering rise to power.
The confrontation between a civilian president and the Supreme Military Council was not long in coming. As Morsi took office the army issued decrees giving itself immunity from any civilian oversight and stating that it would nominate a new constituent assembly. Within weeks the new president had the decrees set aside by declarations of his own – the once all powerful head of the Military Council, Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, was ushered into retirement and the army effectively sent back to its barracks.
Amid these events the constituent assembly that had been suspended by the courts was reformed and it began the work of drafting a constitution. Once again, however, its composition came under attack by secular forces, and its work was marked by walkouts, protests and legal challenges.
|Many Egyptians insist that Morsi’s constitution does not meet the vision of the democratic nation for which they fought [Reuters]|
But in November, Morsi issued more decrees granting himself sweeping powers, and in doing so he also removed the power of the courts to dissolve the assembly. Within a week of the decrees a draft constitution was presented to the public, and a date for a national referendum on the document was set.
Amidst massive and violent public protest the president rescinded a number of his decrees, but the draft constitution remained and calls to cancel the referendum were swept aside. It was only 48 hours before the polls opened that the opposition parties backed away from a boycott, instead calling on their followers to vote ‘no’. Many judges, though, incensed by what they regarded as their marginalisation by the president, refused to supervise the process.
The process went ahead and it appears likely that by the end of the year a new constitution will be in place – but after months of bitter and sometimes violent argument it is a constitution that many Egyptians insist does not meet the vision of the democratic nation for which they fought.
The document that was supposed to unite a nation has left behind a country more divided than at any time since the revolution. In the minds of many, the struggle for a democratic society is far from over. As the year ends, however, the prospect is looming of yet another electoral process: within 60 days of the adoption of the constitution new parliamentary elections are to be held.
It is another opportunity for those dissatisfied with what they have to make the changes they want. Those hankering after stability will hope that this will also be an opportunity seized to move protest from the streets to the ballot box.