Cementing division

Policemen stand guard near a banner outside the constitutional court put up by supporters of Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi as they stage a sit-in, in Cairo December 23, 2012. Mursi will have little time to savour victory in pushing through a new constitution as it may have cost the Islamist leader broader support for urgent austerity measures needed to fix the creaking economy. The banner reads, "We support you against corruption!" REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

The latest development in the saga of Egypt’s popular uprising and political transition is the passage of a constitutional referendum with the support of around 64 percent of voters, according to the authorities. But instead of representing a bright chapter in the march toward democracy, the referendum might be remembered as a story of lost opportunities.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, as its critics are fond of saying, was a latecomer to the uprising that swept President Hosni Mubarak from power.

The uprising was given huge momentum by several groups in Egyptian society, such as liberals, leftists and secularists, and old-style nationalists, among others. Instead of the passage of a new constitution representing the crowning achievement of these groups working together, along with the Brotherhood, the divisive vote only cemented division.

The opposition to the Brotherhood probably erred in the first place by agreeing to contest the referendum, since a simple majority was all that was needed to decide this critical issue. A two-thirds requirement would have brought victory to the anti-Brotherhood coalition in the two-round poll, which also saw the opposition accuse the government of fraud and irregularities.

Egypt thus exits the referendum in a state of total animosity between government and opposition, and if Mursi is keen on steering Egypt safely through the next few months he must make efforts to address the divisions. If the problem is swept under the rug, there will only be a superficial calm, with a fire waiting just beneath the surface.

Mursi and his team are revealing the Muslim Brotherhood as cynical politicians with their own narrow interests at heart. They have pushed through a constitution that does little to satisfy the Egyptian street. The army has been allowed to function seemingly outside the control of civilians; women, minorities and other groups aren’t happy with the lack of clearly spelled-out rights and freedoms; would-be investors and other foreign parties are not exactly reassured by the document’s commitments to international law.

As if this weren’t enough, Mursi is also set on exerting power over Al-Azhar, meaning that not even a symbol of moderate Islam is allowed its independence. It’s as if the Brotherhood is pursuing a comprehensive platform of making enemies instead of practicing inclusion and overseeing a new political and economic beginning that enjoys broad-based popular support.

Mursi and his team should remember that the constitution and the political battle over it provide no remedy to the country’s overriding concern, its economy. Egypt’s tourism sector, an important source of hard currency, is suffering under the Brotherhood’s blundering management. The Egyptian currency is suffering as a result of the turmoil, and the government is aware that a package of austerity measures will be very unpopular – this is why the move was delayed until after the vote on the constitution.

Some of the “yes” votes might have been cast to give Mursi a chance to move onward and rule. But there is no guarantee that these voters might not turn against the government if it tries to push through policies that target people who are already in need of economic opportunity, and not higher taxes.

The International Monetary Fund, the provider of the loan for which austerity measures must be taken, has made it clear that it prefers political consensus, and not division. Mursi and his advisers should look directly north, toward Greece, if they require any sign of the negative repercussions of enforcing austerity during a time of political tension.

If he doesn’t reach out to rivals and commit to a genuine political reconciliation, Mursi and his team will face an atmosphere of tension in which the next explosion lies just around the corner.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 24, 2012, on page 7.




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