At stake: the identity of Egypt

14-12-2012 04:16 PM

As Watani International went to press, Egyptians were gearing for the Saturday 15 December referendum on the controversial draft constitution which practically divided the nation into two

conflicting factions: Islamist and non-Islamist or secular. 
The draft was written by a Constituent Assembly fully dominated by Islamists, to the point that the seculars who had started off as members in that assembly withdrew one and all. Among those who withdrew were the representatives of the three main Churches in Egypt: the Coptic Orthodox, Coptic Catholic and the Evangelical Church, who pulled out on 16 November.
On 22 November President Mohamed Mursi issued the notorious Constitutional Declaration by which he granted himself sweeping powers, immunised his decisions against court rulings, and rendered untouchable the Shura Council (the upper house of Egypt’s parliament) and the Constituent Assembly—the legality of both bodies was already being contested in court. A week later, the draft constitution was rushed through the Constituent Assembly and handed over to the President who then set the date 15 December for a referendum on the draft. Ever since, Egypt has known no peace; demonstrations and counter-demonstrations by thousands upon thousands of Egyptians erupted everywhere.
A ‘No’ vote?
The draft constitution places Egypt on the threshold of becoming an Islamist State; hence the division of Egyptians into Islamists and non-Islamists. The fierce struggle in which each faction attempts to have its way is over no less than the identity of Egypt. The Islamists give priority to the Islamic identity, claiming it abrogates every other. The non-Islamists give precedence to the Egyptian identity, insisting it does not contradict any religious affiliation; it is on the contrary inclusive and allows for the legendary diversity and plurality of Egypt.
For the non-Islamists, it was obvious President Mursi feared public opposition to an Islamist constitution, so had hastened to secure the power that would allow him to get that constitution passed. Even in the event of a “No’ vote, the same Islamist Constituent Assembly which the President had made untouchable would draft another constitution, predictably Islamist too.
With Egypt in all likelihood being driven by an Islamist president to an Islamist State, was it any surprise the seculars were up in arms? 
Anyone who was surprised at the huge numbers of the secular demonstrators need not have been. Again, had President Mursi been certain the Islamists could pull off the vote on the draft constitution in their favour he would in all probability have had no need to resort to the extraordinary measures he took and which cast him in the light of a usurper of freedoms.
Yet President Mursi claimed that a ‘No’ vote would delay the election of a new People’s Assembly (PA)—the first post-2011 Revolution PA had been dissolved last May by court order—and hence a ‘legitimate’ State. But he yet had to persuade seculars of this argument.
Sugar and cooking oil
The crisis of confidence meant Egyptians were no longer sure the result of the referendum would not be manipulated to bring in a ‘Yes’ vote to an Islamist constitution. 
The seculars joined forces under the name the National Salvation Front and under the leadership of former Arab League Chief and presidential contender Amr Moussa, presidential contender Hamdeen Sabahi, and the politician and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed ElBaradei. After an initial strong opposition to the referendum, they finally decided to rally for a ‘No’ vote, even though the possibility of a last-minute boycott remained in the wings. They spread their message through public rallies, social networking sites, and the media. 
A series of advertisements on satellite TV channels particularly captured the public’s attention,43.jpg since they drew attention to several articles, other than the sharia-related articles, in the draft constitution that fell short of securing rights. Among these were articles on health care, freedom, and stability.
The Islamists, not surprisingly, resorted to the standard mobilisiation of their ranks to vote ‘Yes’, as well as to their by-now familiar practice of election bribes. In the poorer districts, they dispensed cooking oil and sugar to needy families; the packages carried the clause: “The Freedom and Justice Party (the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood) invites you to vote ‘Yes’ for the constitution”. 
Once the seculars decided to vote ‘No’, the Church called upon the congregation to take part in the vote, but stopped short of calling for a ‘No’ or ‘Yes’ vote; everyone may decide on his or her own, a statement by Pope Tawadros II said. The Church is praying for Egypt, the Pope said.
Playing the sectarian card
As the battle over the constitution heated up, it was obvious the MB had no qualms about playing the sectarian card. The Vice Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) Khairat al-Shater claimed, in a talk on al-Jazeera TV channel, that the protestors who were demonstrating in front of the presidential palace in Cairo were mainly Copts. A couple of days later, the MB leader Mahmoud al-Beltagui stood before the thousands of Mursi supporters who were demonstrating at Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, east of Cairo, and insisted that 60 per cent of the secular demonstrators in front of the presidential palace are Copts.
On the level of stories among mainstream Muslims, rumours circulated that it was Coptic militias armed by the Church which killed the Muslim demonstrators on Black Wednesday—Wednesday 5 December.
Such stories however, whether on the part of the MB leaders or the grassroots, were severely criticised by the national political movements. 
Gamila Ismail, vice head of the liberal al-Dustour party, said that Copts are Egyptian citizens entitled to the right to demonstrate. No-one, Ms Ismail said, should terrorise the Copts into giving up their right by falsely casting them in a non-patriotic light.
Who pays the price?
Father Rafiq Greiche of the Coptic Catholic Church said that the inflamed political situation in Egypt cannot accommodate any more divisions, and that the MB were palying with fire. “Just to hear them speak, one might imagine that all the demonstrators at the presidential palace are Copts and all those at Rabaa mosque are Muslims. This is not true,” Fr Rafiq said, “and serves to polarise the nation along sectarian lines.”
In case of the Coptic Orthodox Church, a Church source said that Egypt cannot afford more divisions or sectarianism. “Copts are Egyptian citizens with full citizenship rights, including the right to freedom of expression.” This is not the first time the MB resort to playing the sectarian card, the Church source said. This is a very serious error, since it splits Egypt into Muslim and Christian instead of supporter or opponent. Egypt in its entirety stands to pay the price.
Reported by Georgette Sadeq, Robeir al-Faris, Mariam Rifaat, and Nader Shukry
Watani International
16 December 2012
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