x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

The referendum will not solve Egypt's crisis

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood could learn from the Ennahda Party in Tunisia that the key to inclusive politics - and social stability - is compromise.

Egypt's opposition has capitulated, in a sense. The National Salvation Front, which represents a number of opposition groups, on Wednesday called off its boycott of tomorrow's constitutional referendum, and instead urged supporters to vote no. It was seen, by some, as a tacit admission that they were powerless to stop President Mohammed Morsi's plans for the vote.

Several weeks ago, there was a fairly broad consensus that the referendum would be approved by a landslide. The Muslim Brotherhood and its allies have, after all, been victorious at the ballot box every time since the fall of the previous regime. They may well be again.

But really, no one can predict events after the past few weeks, and the destructive divisions exacerbated by Mr Morsi's November decree, which temporarily awarded himself unchallengeable power. It will be weeks before the results of the staggered referendum are made clear.

Even then, Egypt will have nothing resembling closure. The opposition is being offered a poor choice in this referendum: approve a constitution drafted by Islamists, or reject it and return to the status quo - a political stalemate in which Mr Morsi and his allies have the upper hand.

The actual substance of the proposed constitution is not really the problem, although there are some vague religious references and built-in protections for the military's privileges that concern some of the government's critics.

The real problem is the process by which Egypt arrived at this point. A charitable view is that Mr Morsi merely meant to break the deadlock that has plagued Egypt since the revolution. (A more cynical view might be that he was simply trying to consolidate power at the bidding of his Muslim Brotherhood advisers.) Regardless, the unilateral action has understandably raised fears of a renewed autocracy.

Mr Morsi has blatantly gone back on his word. When he issued the decree on November 22, he said one reason was to organise a more representative Constituent Assembly to draft the constitution, and that the vote could be delayed for three months. Then his Muslim Brotherhood supporters produced this draft constitution in a matter of hours.

It is not too late to change course. Mr Morsi is the elected president, and the power of Egypt's new-found free elections must be respected. As The National columnist Alan Philps writes today, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood could learn from the Ennahda Party in Tunisia. The key to inclusive politics - and social stability - is compromise.