The sharpening struggle over Egypt's future

Masses of people were in the streets of Cairo and other cities across Egypt on Tuesday as protests continued against President Mohamed Morsi and his announcement of a snap referendum on December 15 for a draft constitution written by an assembly dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Late last week, Morsi--facing a return to mass demonstrations on a larger scale than anything since the 2011 upheaval that toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak--announced he was reversing a decree that opponents saw as a naked grab for power. But the Islamist-dominated government is going ahead with the referendum, despite the determination of many of those who made the January 25 revolution to either boycott the vote or oppose the constitution.

Ahmed Shawki, editor of the International Socialist Review and recently returned from Cairo, answered our questions about the latest developments in Egypt and what the shape of the struggle will be in the future.

Anti-Morsi protesters massed outside the presidential palace in Cairo  (Jonathan Rashad)Anti-Morsi protesters massed outside the presidential palace in Cairo (Jonathan Rashad)

MOHAMED MORSI announced last week in the face of massive protests that he was rescinding most of the constitutional decree he issued on November 22 that gave him nearly unchecked power. But he and his government are going ahead with a national referendum on a draft constitution that enshrines the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood as the dominant political force in the country. What's the meaning of Mori's moves?

OBVIOUSLY, IT'S only a partial victory for the demands of the opposition. But I think it's important to stress that it's a very significant one.

For several days, Morsi and other leaders both of his government and of the Muslim Brotherhood had ruled out the possibility of any retreat on the decree of November 22. On Thursday night of last week--after two days of massive demonstrations and fighting in the streets between protesters and Muslim Brotherhood supporters--Morsi gave quite a combative speech in which he refused to back down on what he was advancing. So for him to do an about-face a couple days later is very important.

The reason why is very significant as well--disenchantment with the Brotherhood among wide swathes of the Egyptian population has reached whole new levels. It's not overstating it to say that masses of people feel revulsion at the Brotherhood for what's seen by everyone as an attempt to hijack the revolution.

This disenchantment wasn't lost on the U.S. government nor on the Egyptian military, both of which intervened to try to support Morsi's government, but in such a way as to make clear that they didn't think further street battles and a further polarization of Egyptian society was a price worth paying to ram through the measures.

In particular, the military issued a statement on Saturday, one day before Morsi rescinded the decree, which was quite reminiscent of the statements made in the final days of the reign of Hosni Mubarak, the dictator who was toppled by the January 25 Revolution last year. The military basically said they wouldn't curtail the rights of the people, which was a way, I think, of also trying to get Morsi and his team to back down.

Up until then, all of the leading figures of the Morsi government had been coming out with very aggressive statements--we're the majority, we won the elections, we'll show you if you try to step out of line and that kind of language. So this move was to postpone a confrontation that they very much stumbled into.

On the referendum, the opposition groups organized around the broad-based National Salvation Front are calling for a boycott. They say that participating in the referendum on a draft constitution--which was apparently written in 18 hours--would be to legitimize not only Morsi's rush to a vote, but the constitution itself.

Other opponents of the Morsi government, notably Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who split from the organization and ran as a liberal Islamist candidate in the presidential election earlier this year, are calling on people to vote no.

There will be a substantial "yes" vote. For a variety of reasons, several different sectors of Egyptian society are in favor of the constitution passing, and not all of the reasons are identical to Morsi's. Many people in Egypt believe that ratifying the constitution, however flawed, will mean a return to a kind of stability.

Economic crisis has affected the country massively. Among other things, Egypt's foreign reserves have fallen by more than half since the revolution that toppled Mubarak, and tourism, one of the main sources of income, has dropped sharply. So that contributes to a mindset of wanting to get the constitution passed in order to be able to return to some semblance of normality.

The referendum will almost definitely pass. But the question is whether the boycott of the opposition will be big enough to make the vote seem illegitimate.

THE LAST three weeks has clearly transformed how millions of Egyptians look at the Muslim Brotherhood. What's the attitude now?

THE MUSLIM Brotherhood has for many, many years been an oppositional grouping that was hounded by successive Egyptian administrations--and at certain times, was supported by them. Nevertheless, people like Morsi or Khairat al-Shater, formerly the Brotherhood's deputy chairman, have served time in prison, suffered torture and so forth. So this is a group that won the admiration of many people for its resistance over the long years of the Mubarak dictatorship.

What's stunning, I think, is how quickly that admiration and support has been undercut--not necessarily among members of the Brotherhood itself, but generally within the population. I was talking to someone in Egypt who was describing the situation and said that he never believed he would see such "overt hatred" for the Brotherhood among the mass of people--those were the words he used: overt hated.

I think that's true for large numbers of Egyptians today. They feel that they were betrayed and that the Brotherhood is trying to hijack the revolution. And while that it hasn't yet produced clear splits in the Brotherhood, but it's caused some pretty wild gyrations on the part of Morsi himself.

Morsi is under significant pressure from various quarters--first, to please his backers in the U.S.; second, to please his backers among conservatives; and third, to please the people who are going to lend money to Egypt, like the International Monetary Fund. And this has led to the most bizarre situations.

For example, after creating this constitutional crisis with his decree, after the mass demonstrations in response, after sending Brotherhood supporters to beat up protesters and the crisis which followed that--after all this, Morsi chose Sunday, December 9, to announce an increase in taxes on everything from alcohol, cigarettes and mobile phone calls to auto licenses and quarrying permits. This is to conform to the conditions of an IMF loan of $4.8 billion that's due to be approved in the next few weeks.

So everyone was discussing this yesterday and what that would mean. But it turns out that in the early morning hours on Monday, Morsi announced that he was rescinding the decision. And he did it on his official Facebook page--which is a new one for me: of major government decisions being announced on Facebook.

All this came less than a week before this crucial referendum. So it makes you wonder who's advising this man--who's in charge. The IMF board of directors is expected to vote on approving the loan on December 19, so why announce the price increases before the referendum. Even the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, put out a statement on Sunday denouncing the president's decision and calling on Prime Minister Hesham Qandil to halt the taxes "until they are submitted to the People's Assembly after its formation."

So you're talking about a situation of some chaos as a result of the scale of the crisis. To explain some of his behavior, I think it's useful to think of Morsi as not only a fairly unskilled politician who had too narrow a view of advancing the Brotherhood's interests, but also that he's being shoved around by different interests.

Thus with the constitution, it's very obvious that the main statutes of the draft not only embody what the Brotherhood wants in terms of Egyptian society, including sharia law, but they also enshrine all of the rights that the military had under previous regimes. That includes trying civilians in military tribunals. The draft constitution creates a new National Defense Council, comprised of army officers, which will control the military budget and will even have authority over declaring war and sending troops overseas.

So I think what we're seeing playing out is that the Muslim Brotherhood has become a force for stabilization in Egypt and the re-imposition of authority, whatever role some of their members, and in particular the youth, may have played in the overthrow of Mubarak.

It's important to understand that the Brotherhood--as it's shown in very practical terms in the past weeks--is a profoundly conservative organization that is committed to neoliberalism and committed to running Egyptian society in a hierarchical fashion.

WHAT KIND of effect has the polarization and the return of mass protest had on the opposition?

I THINK that the forces united in the National Salvation Front represent, in many inchoate ways, the emergence of the second stage of the Egyptian revolution.

It's very heterogeneous--it runs from very moderate liberals like Mohamed ElBaradei with ties to the West, or others who even have connections to the old regime, to the radical leftists and socialists who were at the heart of the January 25 revolution. But this really does represent the alternative, electorally and politically and socially speaking, to the creation of a monolithic state.

Egyptian society is still going through enormous changes. One friend in Cairo told me that something like 250,000 Coptic Christians have fled the country. This was a persecuted minority under Mubarak, but it's also fearful of the kind of policies that the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to put in place. But at the same time that you have this flight, one of the features of the current mobilizations is the widespread involvement of Coptic Christians, including around issues that don't necessarily involve religion.

In general, people are recognizing the threat that the revolution is going to be stolen. But there's a sense that the masses of people have woken up, and they won't easily go back. So that's the context that will help shape and define the opposition--above all, the revulsion that many hundreds of thousands of people now feel about the actions of the Muslim Brotherhood.

A whole new kind of "political normal" is being created. This isn't going to be like the struggle that we saw against Mubarak. We're not facing a regime with a degenerate and corrupt titular head, who is widely despised. The Muslim Brotherhood has mass support. So demonstrations at the presidential palace and in Tahrir Square aren't going to lead to the same results as with Mubarak.

The Egyptian revolution involved much more than demonstrations, of course--including workers' strikes and so on. But I think we're now talking about a different composition in the balance of forces as the second stage of the revolution confronts the entrenched interests that run Egyptian capitalism and society. That confrontation and challenge is going to be a much more arduous and longer-term project.