It is quite difficult to summarize the state of Egyptian politics in the wake of President Muhammad Mursi's controversial Constitutional Declaration of 22 November, the Constituent Assembly's surprisingly rapid production of the draft constitution and the announcement of a public referendum on that draft constitution required, by law, within fifteen days of the Constituent Assembly's completion of their work. As I've attempted in previous diaries in this occasional series (Part I, on the Constitutional Declaration of 12 August; Part II, on the Constitutional Declaration of 22 November), I'll endeavor to provide some context within which to understand the current political crisis regarding the constitutional referendum and comprehend as well the forces—social, political, economic—pushing and pulling on President Mursi and his Administration as they negotiate the political transition of post-Mubarak Egypt.
Let's first establish where the process on the referendum stands as of right now. Egyptian expatriates began voting yesterday morning and will be able to vote through this coming Saturday. Voting within Egypt is currently scheduled for two consecutive Saturdays, 15 December and 22 December, with half of the Governorates (major civil divisions) voting on each day. A majority "Yes" vote on the referendum will enact the new constitution and trigger parliamentary elections within sixty days, while a majority "No" vote will trigger the popular election of a new Constituent Assembly within ninety days and grant the new Assembly six months to produce a draft constitution which will then be subject to public referendum within fifteen days.
In short, the constitutional referendum is happening. The Administrative Court's ruling on Tuesday that the call for the referendum was an "act of sovereignty" and therefore not subject to judicial oversight removed the most significant legal challenge to holding the referendum. Egyptians, abroad and at home, now have the opportunity to vote "Yes" or "No" on the proposed constitution. The fact that the constitutional referendum is happening, despite the widespread protests of the last week or so, can only be viewed as a political win for the Mursi Administration and its supporters, at least over the short-term.
While the National Salvation Front (a coalition of opposition groups represented by Muhammad al-Barad'i, Hamdin Sabbahi and Amr Musa) had hoped to pressure the Mursi Administration to cancel or at least postpone the referendum—a major goal of the protests outside the Presidential Palace in Heliopolis over the last week—the NSF yesterday announced their conditional intent to campaign for the "No" vote, thus joining other noteworthy opposition groups such as the Strong Egypt Party and the 6 April Youth Movement. The NSF proposed five conditions for their participation in the referendum, four of which are easily met. The fifth, namely that the referendum be held on a single day, is provocative in that it exposes and exploits the unwillingness of much of the Egyptian judiciary to supervise the vote. Voting in half of the Governorates on two consecutive Saturdays is the Mursi Administration's and Supreme Electoral Commission's workaround to the judicial boycott, allowing those members of the judiciary willing to participate to work in more than one polling-station. Clearly, that condition set by the NSF will not be met and we will soon see whether they will boycott the referendum or commit to campaigning for the "No" vote.
Follow me, if you will, below the crispy ta'miya al-burtuqali for some thoughts on the potential outcomes of the constitutional referendum as well as some commentary on the deeper social and political struggles that have shaped the political process to this point.
Any comment on the potential outcome of the referendum must, at this point, consider the as yet unresolved question of whether the NSF will call for a boycott. Al-Barad'i, Sabbahi, Musa and other representatives of the opposition are in a bit of a jam, really. If they stand firm by their condition that the referendum be held on one day and call on their supporters to boycott the referendum then it is almost assured to pass, after which their routes to "success" are limited to the courts (several cases questioning the legality of Mursi's Constitutional Declaration, on which the legal status of the referendum depends, are slated to be heard in early to mid-January; in my opinion the courts, faced with a passed referendum as a fait accompli, will simply decline to rule) and / or a return to massive street-protests. If however they commit to campaigning for "No" votes on the referendum, then they've effectively recognized the legitimacy of the process. As noted above, the opposition's best strategy was to compel the Mursi Administration to cancel the referendum or at least postpone it until legal challenges to the partially revoked Constitution Declaration of 22 November could be heard. Their second-best strategy, one set to be revealed later today, is to produce an alternative constitution on the basis of which they might more effectively campaign for "No" votes.
With few exceptions, the analysts whom I find credible have indicated the opinion that the constitutional referendum is likely to pass with or without an NSF-organized boycott but that it will pass with a narrow majority. The unanswerable question at that point will be whether the various opposition groups will 1) cede the referendum and shift their collective focus to winning seats in the subsequent Parliamentary elections in order to take the fight over contentious Articles into the legislative branch or 2) return to the streets pending final legal challenges to the Constitutional Declaration, face demonstrably well-organized counter-demonstrations and test the allegiances of the military and non-military security forces. Bluntly, I believe that the Articles of the draft constitution dealing with the Armed Forces are favorable enough to the military's entrenched political and economic powers to secure the allegiance of its leaders and I believe that the shameful averting of eyes from the abject mistreatment of opposition protesters during the recent protests outside of the Presidential Palace is indicative of this fact. Prolonged and widespread protests might shift that allegiance, but at the moment it seems that the military is indeed standing with the Mursi Administration's commitment to "process" and vision of "stability."
Since taking power in June, the Mursi Administration has been challenged by aspects of the "deep state," the institutional legacy of the Mubarak regime and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces' (SCAF) stewardship of the immediate post-Mubarak political transition. In the Constitutional Declaration of 12 August and the Articles of the draft constitution related to the Armed Forces, the Administration seems to have successfully reconfigured the political relationship between the executive and the military, at the price of maintaining the military's economic fiefdom and deliberately vague Articles related to civilian oversight. In the Constitutional Declaration of 22 November and subsequent decrees as well as in Articles related to the judiciary, the Administration seems to have successfully shifted judicial authority away from those institutions viewed as impediments to the completion of the Constituent Assembly's work and the referendum on the draft constitution. Finally, in general terms, both the legislative and executive branches have been vexed by the system put in place by SCAF and the judiciary, albeit partially with the voters' consent, for the process of political transition. Yet the Administration's methods for dealing with the "deep state" have been extraordinary, if not also extra-legal, arrogations of executive authority and they rightly raise the question of whether the end justifies the means.
Responding to the question of whether the end justifies the means depends to a great degree on what you see as "the end." Per the rhetoric of the Mursi Administration, their goal is to use their temporarily assumed extraordinary powers to move the transition process forward by holding the constitutional referendum and then holding either Parliamentary elections (in the case of "Yes" on the referendum) or popular elections for a new Constituent Assembly (in the case of "No".) There should be no doubt that economic concerns are playing a significant role in the impulse to move the process forward, as a $4.8 billion IMF loan and other sources of desperately needed foreign assistance are in jeopardy. The IMF loan in particular depends upon the imposition of austerity measures—reduced subsidies; increased taxes—that are not going to be decreed until there is some resolution to the current crisis (funny story, though: in a moment of profound political ineptitude, tax-hikes on a number of commodities were announced this past Sunday then quickly suspended just hours later.) In addition to economic concerns, I suspect that part of the Administration's hastiness emanates from the not unreasonable uncertainty of the allegiance of the Armed Forces in the event of a prolonged constitutional crisis, especially one in which the forms of violence of 5 and 6 December become more widespread.
Alternatively, some of the opposition and much of the commentariat view "the end" justified by the means to be the strong-armed passage of a constitution embodying the ideology of the Ikhwan and the permanent arrogation of extraordinary executive power. The Constituent Assembly charged with drafting the constitution was, from its inception, dominated by Islamists of various stripe and under-representative of liberals, labor-reps, and the Churches. With the resignations of virtually all of the non-Islamist members of the Assembly in the days before and after the 22 November Declaration the deep disagreements over ~25 Articles were settled largely in favor of an Islamist view of governance generally more in line with the Ikhwan than the Salafis. The piece by Lombardi and Brown linked below is a must-read on this. As for whether the arrogated executive powers are intended to be permanent, there is only Mursi's announced intention to yield those powers once the result of the referendum has been announced. In other words, there is only trust, a commodity in extremely short supply.
One thing that the Mursi Administration is doubtlessly banking on for the expected "Yes" vote on the constitutional referendum is the exhaustion among many less overtly political Egyptians who may simply want the political transition to move toward some state of normalcy, absent persistent protests and counter-protests. Certainly this so-called "silent majority" is the target of the Administration's post-Declaration rhetoric related to "stability" and "chaos."
Are the machinations of the Mursi Administration acts of political competence, political desperation or ideological arrogance? Unsatisfying as this answer will likely be to some readers among you bold few who have made it this far, I myself would respond that there has been a combination of the three. Excising remnants of the deep state is a political necessity and, at least with respect to the Declaration of 12 August and certain Articles of the Declaration of 22 November targeting the judiciary, seems deftly done. Other Articles in the recent Declaration and the rapid conclusion of the draft constitution (necessitating the call to referendum) seem hasty and read "desperate" to me. Finally there is no doubt that the draft constitution hews much more closely to the Ikhwan's vision of the Egyptian state than any liberal vision, whether that was the original intent or an opportunistic response to the resignations of non-Islamist members of the Constituent Assembly.
If, as seems likely, the referendum passes then the next move belongs to the opposition groups. Will the current alliances-of-convenience among opposition groups hold or collapse? Will they respect the results and shift focus toward the courts, toward Parliamentary elections or return to the street? If the latter, how will they be received by counter-protesters, the security forces and the broader public?
In sum, it's a mess and there's a fair chance that it's going to get even messier.
I can't possibly cite everything I consider worth reading here, nor go into adequate detail concerning every point of interest. I'm pretty sure I've already got one foot on each side of the tl;dr line. That said, I've included below a selection of news and opinion pieces I've been reading recently which, together with links therein and the readings linked in the two other posts in this series, you may find informative.
Food for Thought:
Official English Translation of the Draft Constitution [pdf]
"Morsy Orders Military to Maintain Security Until Referendum Complete" Egypt Independent (9 Dec 2012)
"Morsy Suspends Tax Plan, Calls the Increase a 'Burden' on Average Citizen" Egypt Independent (10 Dec 2012)
"Morsi's Call for Constitutional Poll Cannot Be Overruled: Egypt State Council" Al-Ahram (11 Dec 2012)
"Egypt's Constitution Poll to Be Held in Two Phases" Al-Ahram (12 Dec 2012)
"Constitution Party to Reveal Alternative Constitution on Thursday" Al-Ahram (13 Dec 2012)
"Armed Forces Arrest Powers Confined to Referendum, Spokesperson Says" Egypt Independent (13 Dec 2012)
Amro Ali, "Brothers in the Hood: Egypt's Soft Powers and the Arab World" Jadalliya (10 Dec 2012)
Nathan Brown, "Egypt's Constitution Conundrum" Foreign Affairs (9 Dec 2012)
CEIP, "Morsi's Constitutional Referendum: The State of Play" Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (8 Dec 2012)
Juan Cole, "The Green-Khaki Alliance: Morsi Deploys the Military for Referendum" Informed Comment (10 Dec 2012)
Juan Cole, "Will Egyptian Left and Liberals Urge a 'No' Vote on Constitution or Boycott?" Informed Comment (13 Dec 2012)
Ellis Goldberg, "Egypt's Political Crisis" Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel (10 Dec 2012)
Noha el-Hennawy, "The Chilling Brothers" Egypt Independent (13 Dec 2012)
Amira Howeidy, "The Balance of Power" Al-Ahram (13 Dec 2012)
Maggie Hyde, "Fiscal Fumbling: Tax Law, IMF Turmoil Knocks Economy" Egypt Independent (12 Dec 2012)
Carina Kamel, "Mursi's Tax U-Turn Casts Doubts Over Government's Competence" Al-Arabiya (11 Dec 2012)
Clark Lombardi and Nathan Brown "Islam in Egypt's New Constitution" Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel (13 Dec 2012)
Dina Samak, "Egypt's National Salvation Front to Vote Against Constitution" Al-Ahram (12 Dec 2012)