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" a' 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 16-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.