Brotherhood's brute tactics rule out a fair referendum
The developments in Egyptian politics in the last week have arguably been the most shocking since the 18 days of turmoil that overthrew Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Whereas the revolt against Mubarak had been unexpected because the opposition seemed weak, the general population resigned and the security apparatus strong, the more recent events are an upset of a different nature altogether.
The actions of President Mohammed Morsi and the Islamist movements that support him are reconfiguring the boundaries of permissible political behaviour and changing a century-old idea of what kind of state Egypt is. The result of this upheaval is hard to predict, but it will almost certainly permanently harden the mostly fluid divisions that are at the centre of Egypt's political life, and make a transition to a stable democratic system much more difficult.
This fundamental change is, in a sense, more important than the content of the constitution approved by the Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly, which Mr Morsi has sent for a national referendum on December 15.
The sorry spectacle of an all-Muslim, almost all-male, middle-aged Assembly rushing to approve articles and make last-minute changes in a 17-hour marathon session does not bode well for how the Islamists think the country should be ruled. Nor does the fact that the president and the Brotherhood have unleashed vitriolic attacks against the judiciary, including sending protesters to intimidate judges - as they did on Sunday when the Supreme Constitutional Court was set to rule on the legality of the Assembly. That forced the Court to postpone its potentially explosive verdict that might have tested the power of Mr Morsi's November 22 decree.
The content of the constitution reflects the paucity of thought that went into its making. Even if it offers improvements in places, there are many regressions in others. Non-Islamists are right to be worried about the strategic sprinkling of religious and moral references in the text, which will give the Islamist movements traction to narrow freedom of speech, civil liberties and gender equality in the future.
A socially conservative bent in the document is one thing, but other parts are straightforward betrayals of the battles fought in the last 16 months by Egyptians of all political leanings. The centrepiece is, perhaps, three articles covering the military that are precisely the same as those that were rejected a year ago by a massive demonstration uniting Islamists and non-Islamists. Now that the Islamist groups are desperate to secure the silence, or tacit approval, of the military during this crisis, the Brotherhood has adopted the same provisions that it once rejected.
And then there is the way the constitution was passed. Aside from the rush, and the fact that most Egyptians had no access to the draft being considered (which, at times, was amended on the fly), a few things stand out.
The first is the absence of Christian members, notably the Coptic Orthodox Church's representatives: this flies in the face of a century of received wisdom about the need for at least token Coptic buy-in. It represents an abandonment of the idea of national unity, the foundation of the modern nationalist movement born in 1919.
The principle had long been eroded by the handling of sectarian questions during the Sadat and Mubarak eras, but it may now have been delivered a death blow. The Muslim Brotherhood - if not the Salafis - had always given the idea at least a token nod, and are fond of pointing out that the Brotherhood's founder, Hassan Al Banna, had Coptic advisers. The negative symbolism of not having Christians present for what was meant to be the foundational moment of a new Egypt is simply staggering, with profound consequences for the sectarian question.
The second is that the framing of this new constitution represents an impossible choice. In his November 22 decree, Mr Morsi had initially extended the deadline for the Assembly to finish its work by two months - a commendable choice. But, in the face of public outrage, he decided to drop this and accelerate the constitution-drafting process, while unleashing an unprecedented attack on the judiciary (although he never presented evidence for his suspicions that some judges were plotting against him).
That attack culminated in the physical intimidation of judges this week, leading the land's top court - which was at the centre of the earlier decree - to suspend its work. The result is that many judges may not provide their traditional monitoring role during the upcoming referendum. In the period leading to the referendum, Mr Morsi will retain both his judicial immunity and the power to make any other decrees he deems fit.
Finally, the referendum itself essentially presents the following dilemma: either accept a constitution that was rammed through by one faction, or reject it and risk returning to a transition in shambles, with a president who will retain his extraordinary privileges.
Backers of Mr Morsi's plan are clearly confident that they will be successful in mobilising a "yes" vote in the referendum - so much so they have not really considered the alternative. They may be right, but consider that in choosing this path - in part, it must be said, because of the frustration of dealing with an often obstructionist opposition - they will have to campaign yet again on identity politics.
Already the language in the Morsi camp has been hostile against non-Muslims and "atheists", as they sometimes brand Muslims who do not share their views.
All of this smacks of panic and paranoia in Mr Morsi, and an easy recourse to bullying that is all too reminiscent of Mubarak. Whether the constitution is adopted or rejected will not matter as much, ultimately, as the unravelling of the unspoken rules of the political game.
Issandr El Amrani is an independent journalist based in Cairo who blogs at arabist.net
On Twitter: @arabist
Updated: December 4, 2012 04:00 AM