Q & A: What’s Driving Egypt’s Unrest?

In scenes reminiscent of the mass demonstrations that brought about the downfall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in early 2011, thousands of protestors have turned out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square over the past week.

What’s behind the latest unrest?

The protests were sparked by a November 22 presidential decree issued by President Mohamed Morsi– the first freely elected leader of this country of 83 million, the most populous Arab nation — which prevented any court from overturning his decisions until a new, post-Mubarak constitution was ready. The ruling has essentially given him unchecked power, protecting from judicial review any decisions he has made since assuming office.


What was Morsi’s rationale?

Insisting the order is temporary — it will last only until a new constitution was drafted – Morsi claimed the move was intended to safeguard the revolution. He also gave an assurance his decree would only apply to “sovereign” matters.

In particular, Morsi said, the edict was aimed at preventing interference from the courts in the work of Egypt’s Constituent Assembly, the body charged with drafting a new constitution. The judges, many of whom were holdover loyalists from the government of Mubarak, are widely viewed as hostile to the Islamists who now dominate the assembly that has been charged with framing a new constitution. Some had threatened to shut down the assembly.

Morsi’s move, which has concentrated power in the hands of the executive, is a continuation of the power struggles between Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood — the Islamist movement that is Egypt’s most powerful political force and won nearly half the seats in parliamentary elections — and the remnants of the military-dominated establishment of the Mubarak years.

In June, just weeks before Morsi’s election, Egypt’s military leaders declared parliament invalid and dissolved the body, a ruling which was upheld by Egypt’s highest court in September. After his election, Morsi defied the military leadership by calling parliament into session. Morsi’s edict ruled out the possibility of repeat interference.

In August, the president moved decisively against the military leadership, sending into retirement Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi — who, as Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, had acted as the country’s de facto ruler in the wake of Mubarak’s ouster and prior to Morsi’s election.

What has been the response?

Morsi’s decree has sharply divided Egyptians. While the Muslim Brotherhood is standing by their man, holding large rallies to show support, many other Egyptians have seen the order as an alarming and undemocratic power grab — a lurch back towards an authoritarian style of leadership the country had only recently overthrown.

Left-leaning and liberal Egyptians — who had played a large part in the revolution but were sidelined by the success of Islamists in subsequent elections — made up a large component of the protestors in Tahrir Square. Many of their chants accused Morsi, the first democratically elected president, of becoming a “new pharaoh” and “dictator.”


“In some ways, the liberal and left-wing forces are trying to stake a claim to the revolution again through the protests,” Laleh Khalili, a reader in politics at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, told CNN.

The demonstrators, who have been calling on Morsi to resign, also included some of those sympathetic to the military and the old regime, she said.

How did it come about?

Morsi issued his edict the day after the November 21 cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, which he had played a central role in brokering. Khalili said that, buoyed with new found political capital from his successful foray on the international stage, the Egyptian president may have miscalculated, underestimating the level of outrage his actions would provoke.

The anger on the streets, she said, also reflected a level of public dissatisfaction with progress made since the revolution in addressing issues of poverty and inequality in a country with an unemployment rate of more than 12%, a median age of about 24 years, and a per capita GDP of $6,500.

“Many of the original grievances behind the revolution were derived from questions around extreme inequality and corruption,” she said. “Those issues have not been addressed.”

The protests represented “a perfect storm of many grievances coming to the fore,” she said, and it was not clear how it would play out. “It’s a fundamental challenge to the legitimacy of the regime.”

What else was in the declaration?

Other aspects of Morsi’s edict are likely to prove popular with many of those who have taken to the streets against him. In his decree, Morsi also announced that all deaths and violence connected to the uprising against Mubarak would be investigated again, with those responsible retried if necessary.

This raised the possibility that Mubarak, currently serving a life prison term, could be re-prosecuted, along with a number of regime figures who were previously acquitted.

Some Egyptians have expressed disappointment that security forces and officials have escaped punishment over last year’s violent crackdown on protestors.


Morsi also sacked the prosecutor-general in his declaration, and extended the timeline for drafting the constitution by two months.

But while those resolutions may be welcomed by many, the unilateral manner in which Morsi has gone about expanding his powers has alarmed many.

“It’s the way he’s doing it that has gotten people upset, because it reminds them of the way Mubarak used to govern,” Peter Jones, a Middle East expert at the University of Ottawa, told CNN.

One popular slogan during the current protests has been “Morsi is Mubarak.”

If Morsi’s new powers are only temporary, why the outrage?

Firstly, there is no guarantee that Morsi will relinquish power as promised.

Secondly, even if Morsi rescinds the decree after the constitution is finalized, protesters fear that he has used the edict to hijack the process of drafting the new constitution, producing a document that reflects his Islamist vision and consolidates his power in the new Egypt.

Liberal, left-wing and Christian members of assembly have boycotted the body over concerns that Islamists are dominating the process — with many of them subsequently replaced by Islamists.

What is happening with the constitution now?

Despite the extended deadline to complete the framing of the constitution, the assembly charged with crafting the document rushed to produce a finalized draft, after a marathon 21-hour negotiation session through the night.

The 234-article draft will go before the public for a referendum on December 15; if it passes the referendum, Morsi says the decrees would be lifted.

While some critics have seen the move as a successful power grab by Islamists to “hijack” the constitution, others view the hurried drafting of the document as an attempt to defuse the crisis: The passing of a new constitution could bring an end to Morsi’s new provisions without requiring him to back down.

“This could be a way for him to get out of this debacle without reversing his decree and decisions,” Aly Hassan, a judicial analyst affiliated with the Ministry of Justice, told CNN.

What does the drafted constitution say?

The draft constitution maintains the principles of sharia as the main source of legislation — a position unchanged from the constitution under Mubarak.

But critics say it could lead to excessive restrictions on certain rights.

“(Morsi) put to referendum a draft constitution that undermines basic freedoms & violates universal values,” wrote Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel laureate and head of Egypt’s Constitution Party, on his Twitter account. “The struggle will continue.”

Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said that “moving a flawed and contradictory draft to a vote is not the right way to guarantee fundamental rights or to promote respect for the rule of law.”

Mohamed Naeem, a member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, said he fears the proposed constitution would open the way for a theocracy by moving the country closer to sharia law.

What are the latest developments?

Morsi’s power struggles with the judiciary have continued to escalate, with Islamist protesters surrounding the country’s supreme constitutional court at the weekend and forcing it to suspend its sessions indefinitely.

The court has been due to rule on the validity of the constitutional assembly tasked with drafting the constitution, but the judges were unable to enter the court premises.

There have also been threats from judges that they will refuse to supervise the December 15 national referendum on the constitution; although on Monday members of the Egypt’s Supreme Judicial Council gave an undertaking they would oversee the vote.

Independent newspapers and television stations have also made a stand against Morsi and the draft constitution, falling silent for two days in protest.

Of particular concern was article 48 of the draft, which tied media freedom to the framework of society and national security — a terminology many Egyptian journalists found vague.


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