x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Egypt's Morsi plays to his power base

The Egyptian president has carefully calibrated his messages over the past week's political crisis, not for the opposition clamouring in the streets, but for his most important electoral bloc - Islamists. Bradley Hope reports from Cairo

Egyptian army engineers and soldiers reinforce a concrete wall around the presidential palace in Cairo. Clashes outside the palace between Islamists and opposition supporters continue.
Egyptian army engineers and soldiers reinforce a concrete wall around the presidential palace in Cairo. Clashes outside the palace between Islamists and opposition supporters continue.

CAIRO // The Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, has carefully calibrated his messages and decisions over the past week's political crisis, not for the opposition clamouring in the streets, but for his most important electoral bloc - Islamists.

That strategy will be important come Saturday, when Egyptians are scheduled to vote in a nationwide referendum on a new constitution.

In every election since Hosni Mubarak resigned from power amid a huge uprising last year, the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the more hardline Al Nour Party have dominated elections.

Drawing on their network of supporters across the country, they have won more than 70 per cent of the seats in the parliament and then helped push through Mr Morsi's election several months later. Meanwhile, their liberal and secular opponents have suffered from disorganisation and an inability to forge alliances, gaining only a modest foothold in Egypt's new-found democracy.

The transitional electoral dynamics have convinced many analysts that the battle over Egypt's future will waged between factions of the Islamist movement, rather than between Islamists and secularists.

Mr Morsi's intended audience was clear in his address to the nation on Thursday night, where he defiantly stood by his decision to give himself wide powers beyond the oversight of the judiciary and to allow a rushed constitution to come to a vote.

In a speech laden with religious language, he portrayed the protesters at the palace gates as having been infiltrated by a "fifth column" bent on derailing the country's peaceful democratic transition.

Those comments infuriated protesters, who compared his "conspiracy theories" to those of Mubarak, but it helped bring out Islamists in force on Friday.

"We are on the path of martyrdom to defend this nation," said Mohammed El Beltagy, a top Brotherhood organiser, in a speech from Al Azhar mosque on Friday before thousands of cheering supporters of the president.

Early yesterday morning, Mr Morsi issued a new declaration stripped of the controversial, expanded powers. But he did so only after a nine-hour national dialogue session that included none of his key opponents, such as Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the umbrella opposition group, the National Salvation Front, and Ahmed Said, the head of the liberal Free Egyptians party.

A few token liberal voices were present, but the main body of the group came from the different strands of the Islamist movement. In attendance were representatives of the ultraconservative Salafists, such as the lawyer Montasser Al Zayat, and members of more moderate Islamist groups, such as the Al Wasat party.

The announcement of a new declaration was read out by Mohammed Selim Al Awa, a former presidential candidate and Islamist legal scholar.

So far, Mr Morsi has convinced many members from across the Islamist spectrum to keep a unified front, but only on the issue of having the constitutional vote go ahead, said Magdi Salem, a former member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad who attended the national dialogue.

He said the president was able to do so because many Islamists agreed with his portrayal of the protests as actually being fuelled by a plot to unjustly end their democratic ascendancies to political power.

"For us, the Salafist and the jihadist groups, we actually don't agree with the president about his decree or the constitution," he said. "The constitution does not live up to our dreams of establishing Sharia law. But we feel that things must keep going on, there must be some compromise, if we are to succeed in the long term."

Mr Morsi's decision to issue a new declaration also heeded a call from Al Azhar's Islamic Research Academy, which issues fatwas on behalf of the 1000-year-old mosque and university.

"The situation should be handled according to what preserves the unity of the nation and the safety of its sons," the academy said last week. "The president of the republic must freeze the recent constitutional declaration and engage immediately in a dialogue that includes all political forces, without exception and without preconditions."

Some of those sympathetic to the Islamist cause have begun distancing themselves from the Muslim Brotherhood, however.

Tariq Al Bishri, an Islamist legal scholar who was the Brotherhood's choice for a military-controlled panel that drafted a constitutional declaration after Mubarak stepped down last year, lashed out at Mr Morsi's actions in an interview with the newspaper Shoroukon November 24.

Calling Mr Morsi's self-appointed powers beyond the oversight of the courts "void", he expressed concern that the president was taking drastic actions that should only be pursued if there was clear evidence of a coup within the country.

On Saturday, Ibrahim El Houdaiby, the great-grandson of a former supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, wrote in an op-ed for the Al Ahram newspaper that Mr Morsi had divided Egyptian society and paved the way for the country's first charter since 1971 to be a flawed constitution.

The draft "blends tyranny with incompletion", he wrote, and "blocks the road to democracy, the people's sovereignty and social justice".

The president's path for Egypt has destabilised some of the support for his regime from moderate Islamists, said Sheikh Mohammed Abdallah Nasser, 35, an expert on Sharia law who said he supports liberals because they have advocated for helping society's neediest people.

"I am against the Brotherhood for many reasons, but one of them is their slogan 'Islam is the solution,'" he said. "It is not right for a political party to suggest they have a monopoly on religion. They are using our faith for personal political gains, for power."

bhope@thenational.ae

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