The Middle East Channel

Gunmen attack opposition camp as Egypt braces for rival protests

Egyptian security officials have reported that masked gunmen attacked a camp of opposition protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square before dawn Tuesday ahead of scheduled rival protests. Officials are unsure who was behind the assault in which nine people were injured from birdshot. Opponents of President Mohamed Morsi hope mass demonstrations, to be held outside the presidential palace, pressure Morsi to cancel a referendum set for December 15 on a disputed draft constitution. If held, opposition groups are undecided on whether to boycott the referendum, or campaign for a "no" vote. They oppose the constitution saying the Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly was not representative of the Egyptian people and the document restricts freedoms. Several hundred Islamist Morsi supporters have camped out in front of a media complex in Cairo, accusing several independent television networks there of being critical of Moris and the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi has ignited fears that Egypt is returning to martial law with an announcement Sunday that the Egyptian army is responsible for the security of state facilities, and is entitled to arrest civilians. A spokesman for Morsi tried to clarify the order on Monday, saying the president has empowered the military only to secure polling stations on Saturday, and that all civilians arrested by the military will be referred to a civilian court rather than military tribunals for trial.

Syria

After weeks of fighting, Syrian opposition forces reportedly overtook large parts of the military base, Base 111, at Sheikh Suleiman about 15 miles form Aleppo on Sunday. According to the BBC, the base was the last remaining government installation in the countryside west of Aleppo. The attack was believed to have been led by Islamist militants, and according to the British based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Free Syrian Army was not involved. The United States has formally designated the Syrian militant group Al Nusra Front as a foreign terrorist organization. The move has come due to concerns that arms and funding to the Syrian opposition is in part going to militant Islamist groups. The decision was made prior to a meeting scheduled for Wednesday in Morocco on options for a political transition from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, during which the United States is expected to formally recognize the new Syrian opposition council. United Nations and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said he had "constructive" talks with U.S. and Russian officials over the weekend on avenues toward attaining a political solution to the Syrian conflict, however there was no major breakthrough. Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters the Syrian government seems to have slowed preparations for the use of chemical weapons, after concerns were heightened last week by reports from U.S. officials. The Syrian opposition is hoping to receive greater support from the Gulf states after forming a new command structure over the weekend in Turkey. The Islamist dominated group brings together most opposition entities including Islamist brigades and "provincial military councils" fighting under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army. The body has excluded Al Nusra Front.

Headlines  

  • Israeli soldiers raided three Palestinian NGOs in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Tuesday nearly two weeks after Palestine won de facto statehood from the U.N. General Assembly.
  • A Bahraini court reduced the sentence of imprisoned activist Nabeel Rajab a day after sentencing pro-democracy activist Zainab al-Khawaja for entering a "prohibited area" and inciting hatred against the government.
  • British-based HSBC, one of the world's largest banks, has agreed to pay $1.92 billion to settle a U.S. money laundering case accusing it of transferring funds for Iran and Mexican drug cartels.

Arguments and Analysis

Al Qaeda in Syria (The New York Times)

The presence of rebel fighters in Syria that were trained and supported by Al Qaeda poses a serious problem for the United States and Western allies. The Nusra Front, an offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq, has become one of the most effective forces fighting against President Bashar al-Assad. The fear is that the group could hijack the revolution and emerge as the dominant force in Syria after Mr. Assad is ousted from power. Obama administration officials have been increasingly frank about this threat, along with the possibility that sectarian conflicts among the country's Sunni, Alawite, Christian and other groups may well rage on after Assad.

Egypt's Constitution Conundrum (Nathan Brown, Foreign Affairs)

"The final draft of Egypt's proposed new constitution, completed in late November, was produced in such a flurry of political maneuvering, threats, and shrill rhetoric that commentators and citizens alike are still trying to understand its implications. From a liberal democratic perspective, there is much to like in the document, especially compared with the one it is replacing. For example, the drafters not only specified a long list of freedoms, as their predecessors did, but also made the wording more difficult for officials to wiggle around. But the document includes just as much that causes concern. It postpones answering the question of civilian oversight of the military until the next constitution is written, years from now. And there are gaping holes and ambiguities that only politics can fill in.

And that is the critical point so often missed: political context always shapes the meaning of constitutional texts. The Arab world's experience with apparently democratic constitutional provisions confirms the rule. Democracy has failed in the Arab world not because governments have routinely violated their countries' highest laws (although they have occasionally cheated) but, rather, because their constitutions' democratic promises have generally been as vague as possible and were left to parliaments to flesh out through regular statutes. European countries first developed that system to ensure that popularly elected bodies, not kings, would define basic rights. When Arab regimes copied the practice -- for example, many of them proclaimed freedom of the press but explained that the freedom would be "defined by law" -- the effect was that rulers could pledge all kinds of rights and let rubber-stamp parliaments rob them of all meaning."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images/MARCO LONGARI

The Middle East Channel

Egypt's political crisis

President Mohamed Morsi and his advisors cannot have expected that his November 22 constitutional declaration would throw Egypt into a renewed state of turmoil. That it has speaks volumes to the immense changes that have occurred in the country during the past two years. Morsi's support for President Barack Obama's truce initiative during the fighting in Gaza clearly reassured the U.S. president that under a Muslim Brotherhood (MB) president Egypt would keep the peace with Israel. Because this has been the dominant concern within the U.S. foreign policy elite about the Egyptian revolution, Morsi had good reason to believe that the United States and the Egyptian Armed Forces would not object to his domestic decisions.   

That Morsi's move has proven, in a deeply divided country, to have been a serious error of judgment is worth reflection. Early responses, especially in the United States, have either been self-satisfied sighs of recognition that the MB have finally revealed their true nature or, alternatively, sharp criticism of a westernized liberal minority that refused to accept gracefully the verdict of democracy mandating a stronger role for Islam, the MB, and Morsi himself. 

Divisions among U.S. commentators mirror divisions in Egypt. Many Morsi supporters argue that the new constitution is the most democratic one ever produced on Egyptian soil. It guarantees the right to start parties and open newspapers without prior approval; it bans torture and espouses the dignity of the prisoner. Opponents argue, in contrast, that it is an extremely bad constitution. It gives unelected religious figures the right of prior review of legislation and it allows the Armed Forces to function independently.

Let us, if only for argument, grant some truth in each of these pictures. The question still is why has there been such a vast outrush of anger at Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidate he was, and why has it been sustained now for more than a week and a half. There have been demonstrations not only in Cairo and Alexandria but in most of the large provincial cities, with protesters numbering in the tens of thousands. Morsi rescinded his original constitutional decree on Saturday, issuing a new one, which addressed some issues of contention. Regardless, protests have raged, with calls for fresh demonstrations on Tuesday.

For the moment we can only go on impressions, however the political divisions appear, for the first time, to be linked to social conflict. Reports from the textile capital, Mahallah, in the middle of the Egyptian Delta, are that protesters took over the city hall and declared themselves independent of what they called "the Muslim Brothers government." Leaders of the insurgent trade union movements there have long evinced opposition to the MB, which has sought to gain control of their movement. In 1981 Assiut was the scene of an uprising designed to create an Islamic emirate by supporters of Abbud al-Zumr, one of the organizers of the assassination of Anwar Sadat and today a prominent Salafi politician. On December 6, thousands of people there marched to protest against Morsi behind a banner calling for Muslim-Christian unity. In Port Said, as elsewhere, already a week ago there were pitched battles between youth opposed to the MB and their members.

So a useful question is why, not quite two years after massive and sustained demonstrations led to the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak, are hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions, of Egyptians out on the streets again? If the opposition politicians are shallow and self-interested, why is anyone heeding their calls? And yet why, if the Brotherhood represents the overwhelming majority of Egyptians -- whether democratic or authoritarian in their inner beings -- are they faced with such massive anger? Observers of attacks on their offices and members agree that -- regrettable as such attacks may be -- they are largely spontaneous. The police, it is true, often do not protect the MB but they seem long since to have decided to vanish whenever violence threatens anywhere.

The answer no longer lies in a draft constitution that very few of the demonstrators, on either side, are likely to have read. Egyptians along with the citizens of a great many other places have learned what is on paper is only a part of the constitution. The other, most important, part lies in the institutions that give the constitutional language presence in everyday life. To some degree this means the habits and choices of low level officials and to some degree it means the courts. And the simple and sad reality for the Brotherhood is that a great many Egyptians distrust, dislike, or fear them and worry that, having come to control the legislature and central executive, they plan to take over the courts as well as staff many of the lower levels of the government.

President Morsi has been unable to allay this distrust, fear, and dislike and over the last week he and his allies have, through words and actions, intensified it. This may be unfair and its results may be tragic, but it remains a profoundly political issue with which he and any Egyptian politicians who aspire to lead the country will ultimately have to deal.

Morsi and his advisors also seem to believe that they can use any stratagem, as long as it remains formally valid, to accomplish their substantive ends. In this they are, regrettably, all too like Egyptian governments of the last 60 years. One of Morsi's advisors admitted that, having been unable to remove former Public Prosecutor Abdel Meguid Mahmoud by ordinary means, Morsi simply changed the constitution to make it feasible (this was supposed to be one of the sections of the declaration that rendered it palatable to the public). Equally remarkably, the MB members of the Constituent Assembly even overrode the advice of the assembly chair and ally, Hosam al-Gheriani, to deny former leaders of Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party political rights for a decade and to grant members of the government's prosecutorial staff judicial immunity. Al-Gheriani was reduced to leaving the dais of the assembly in protest against these provisions. He described the one as political vengeance and the other as an assault on the rights of citizens.

There are probably very few sections of Egyptian society that the Brotherhood and its allies in the Salafi movements have not antagonized. The Brotherhood promised that it would run for only 30 percent of the seats in parliament; then only 50 percent; but finally it competed for nearly 70 percent. The Brotherhood asserted that it would not run a candidate for the presidency and expelled one of its prominent members, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, when he announced his plans to compete. Finally they selected Morsi to run. In the wake of the March 2011 referendum on revising the 1971 constitution, some of their members asserted that the nearly 25 percent of Egyptians who voted "no" could emigrate to Canada if they didn't want to live with the outcome, namely an Islamic state.

The vision of an Islamic society voiced by members of the MB is no more attractive. In 2011 Sobhi Saleh, a prominent appellate attorney and member of the MB, announced that Muslim Brothers should marry within the group rather than outside. Other Muslim women, he intimated, were not worthy.   

Morsi made his own case in a televised address to the country December 6 and   although everyone heard the same words they sounded very different to his supporters and his opponents. He can, on occasion, be animated in television interviews but he is not a warm personality when giving formal speeches. He offered little in the way of compromise. He did distinguish between honest demonstrators who disagree and the minority who, he claimed, had committed murder and mayhem and he invited members of the opposition to join him at the presidential palace to discuss the post-referendum future. This they promptly rejected as irrelevant to the crisis at hand.

He is either unaware or unwilling to admit that Egypt is now passing through a major political crisis that requires extraordinary political skill he does not seem to possess. Instead, having discovered that the imposing but ultimately insufficiently numerous or well-armed young men of the MB cannot restore order, he has decided to return the armed forces to the street, giving them the authority to arrest civilians. If, as Morsi's supporters have long claimed, he brought the army under civilian control, this is a time of unpleasant awakening for he is the same man who will now shelter under martial law. This is a martial law of a weakened army trying to keep watch over a society whose divisions are increasingly raw. But, it is martial law nonetheless, despite what Morsi and his supporters, including those in the White House, choose to call it or to excuse it.

Ellis Goldberg is a professor of political science at the University of Washington, specializing in Middle Eastern politics.

Ellis Goldberg