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Egypt's constitutional crisis will be test of its revolution

There are those in the Brotherhood who still believe in a popular mandate and that expediency is not the answer to everything.

Egypt is going through what may be the most serious crisis since the overthrow of the Mubarak regime. At its heart is the decision by its Muslim Brotherhood-aligned president, Mohammed Morsi, to issue a decree that shelters his actions from judicial review, effectively giving him more power than his predecessor had. Denounced as a latter-day pharaoh, the president says this is a temporary measure, until a new constitution is approved in a referendum.

At the same time, the lead up to the constitution drafting - damaged by walkouts by liberals and representatives of the Coptic Christian minority from the Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly - has been fiercely contested by the opposition.

All this presents serious questions about the progress of the Egyptian revolution. At its most basic level, the feeling is once again growing in the US and Europe that Islam and democracy are not compatible.

The revolutionaries of 2011- or at least the ones that the westerners saw on their television screens - all appeared to have been educated at the American University of Cairo. So it was all the more surprising to outsiders that the Egyptian people - one in four of whom are illiterate - voted massively in favour of the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned candidates in parliament. In political shorthand, the fear is that the Arab Spring is turning into an "Islamist winter".

In September, western opinion was shocked by the jihadist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which the American ambassador, Chris Stevens, was killed. A few days later an assault on the US embassy in Tunis almost had the same result.

The process of writing constitutions in both Egypt and Tunisia has led to a vitriolic public discourse, where wild rumours and conspiracy theories rule out consensus. Meanwhile, economic conditions, which are what most people care about, deteriorate.

Before we jump to conclusions, it should be made clear that problems with constitutions are not unique to Islamist parties. After any revolution, hopes are high, the legitimacy of those drafted to write the constitution is questionable, and the issues the drafters are faced with - often ones of identity - are intractable.

In 1918, the Russian Constituent Assembly was dissolved by Lenin's Bolsheviks after a single day's debate, opening the way for more than 70 years of one-party rule. In Egypt, the Free Officers' coup of 1952, which paved the wave for Gamal Abdel Nasser to come to power in 1956, quickly cast aside any hopes of democracy by opting for socialist dictatorship. In Tunisia, the independence leader, Habib Bourguiba, a radical secularist who liked to be shown on TV drinking in Ramadan, began as prime minister of a parliamentary democracy, but soon changed the constitution to become president, and became as dictatorial as any other Arab strongman.

Ever since the Algerian elections were cancelled in 1991 when it seemed that the Islamists were heading to victory, the view has been widespread in the US that any party which drew inspiration from Islam would mean "one vote, one time". They would cling to power and never leave. But the issue is far more complex. The Islamists these days are not one bloc, and the story of the next few years will undoubtedly be of splits within that camp.

Tunisia's experience is instructive. The moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, is part of a three-way governing coalition with two secular parties. In March, the Ennahda leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, agreed to leave out any reference to Sharia from the constitution, provoking a backlash from the Salafists, the ultra-traditional Islamists, which culminated in the attack on the US embassy.

More recently, the secularists expressed outrage when a draft of the constitution, which explicitly endorses gender equality, referred to the role of women in the family as "complementary" to men, which could be seen as relegating women to second class status. That too is to be dropped, on the basis that the constitution should not contain anything controversial.

Flexibility, therefore, is possible, though there is a price. Being in power erodes popularity and allows the parties outside to outbid the moderates.

Egypt has a different tradition, with millennia of centralised rule. Mr Morsi is determined to reap the benefits of his Freedom and Justice Party's electoral success, and sees conspiracies from the old regime in his way: first the generals, who tried and failed to rule after Mubarak's fall, and now the judiciary, which dissolved the parliament and was expected to do the same to the Constituent Assembly, thus putting the process back to square one. Hence the decision by the Islamists in the assembly to vote on the draft constitution without delay.

Mr Morsi has made mistakes: he failed to attend the enthronement of the new Coptic patriarch, which sent a message that he considers the vote he got in the last elections to absolve him from the basic premise of democracy, that the majority should respect the minority.

There is a clear danger that in "saving" the revolution from the judiciary, Mr Morsi may kill it. But there are voices in the Muslim Brotherhood that still believe in a popular mandate and that expediency is not the answer to everything. A swift return to the Mubarak era, with added Islam, is not fated.

But what can the outside powers do to help? As the Arab revolutions have shown, foreign political influence is limited. And rightly so. The Egyptians want to feel they have the destiny of the country in their hands. The country, however, is running out of cash, and foreign powers control the purse strings of the International Monetary Fund, the quickest source of funds. But public opinion will hardly tolerate any obvious foreign dependency.

Ultimately it is up to the Americans. Does Washington care about democracy in Egypt? Or is realpolitik the guiding principle? If so, the only issue that matters is maintaining the peace treaty with Israel so that, as happened with the week-long Gaza war, Egypt can enforce a ceasefire.



On Twitter: @aphilps

Updated: November 30, 2012 04:00 AM