x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Egypt's political crisis deepens as more judges stop work, protests mount

The constitutional assembly dominated by president Mohammed Morsi's Islamist allies further stirred the controversy when it announced it had completed a draft of the constitution and would vote on it today.

CAIRO // Egypt plunged deeper into political crisis yesterday as another part of the judiciary stopped work while street protests against the president's self-decreed, far-reaching new powers continued.

The constitutional assembly dominated by president Mohammed Morsi's Islamist allies further stirred the controversy when it announced it had completed a draft of the constitution and would vote on it today.

That was despite legal challenges to the assembly's existence and the departure of secular, Christian and opposition politicians from the body.

The top appeals court said it would halt all work until Mr Morsi rescinded his decree, which included immunity from the courts for the assembly, and which placed him above judicial oversight.

The national judges' union had suspended work last week and, after failing to shift Mr Morsi's position this week, said it was fighting for its independence.

The vast crowds who poured into Tahrir Square on Tuesday ebbed yesterday, but hundreds of demonstrators and a small tented sit-in remained.

Tear gas was fired into crowds throughout the day as police cracked down on protesters who have called for Mr Morsi to rescind his decree, or even to step down.

An announcement by the Muslim Brotherhood, echoed by the hardline Al Nour party, that its supporters would rally in support of the president on Saturday prompted fears among analysts that divisions were becoming deeply entrenched and that resolution of the problems was becoming more difficult.

The Brotherhood said yesterday that it hoped to end the crisis by replacing Mr Morsi's controversial decree with an entirely new constitution that would need to be approved by popular referendum.

"The Brotherhood believe they are right and they are going to win," said Shadi Hamid, director of research the Brookings Doha Centre think tank, adding he was not aware of any division of opinion within the group on the necessity for the last week's decree.

"They feel there is a massive conspiracy against them - from the judiciary, the military, various parts of the 'deep state' bureaucracy, the media … they feel that they are under attack."

Since even before Mr Morsi won a narrow victory over Ahmed Shafiq, an official of the fallen regime of Hosni Mubarak, attempts to build a new Egyptian state with a new constitution and democratically elected parliament have been fraught with legal problems.

The lower house of parliament - known as the People's Assembly - was dissolved in June after a panel of judges ruled that elections last year, in which Islamist parties won the most votes, were unconstitutional.

Before the country's legislative mechanisms were engulfed in chaos, the High Constitutional Court had been due to rule on December 2 on the upper house of parliament known as the Shura Council, in a decision that may have dissolved the body on similar legal grounds.

A body charged with drafting a new constitution was disbanded in April because it included parliamentarians among its members, and a second body with the same job is also facing legal challenges, and has seen most of its non-Islamist members step down.

The president's decree, said Mr Hamid, may have been partly motivated by a wish for the constitution to be unveiled without facing more legal challenges.

"The Morsi team is frustrated with the very entrenched bureaucracy which is difficult to change," he said. Members of the assembly drafting the document, which would itself override the decree, said yesterday that the document would be completed in time for a vote on it today.

But the vote is unlikely to appease those demonstrating against the president.

Opposition leader Amr Moussa, who withdrew from the assembly in October, said that the move was "nonsensical and one of the steps that shouldn't be taken, given the background of anger and resentment".

After more than a week of clashes in which at least three people have died and dozens injured, Michael Wahid Hanna of the US Century Foundation think tank said yesterday a solution was becoming more difficult to find.

"The judges seem to be digging in their heels, even rhetorically, so I think we are further away than we were even a couple of days ago from a compromise," Mr Hanna said. "Someone is going to come out of this wounded."

But he said opinion of Mr Morsi was likely to be permanently damaged among parts of Egyptian society.

"I think he has burned some of the goodwill that he earned in Gaza", where the president helped to negotiate a ceasefire between Israeli authorities and Palestinian leaders, "with what is by all accounts an indefensible decision", Mr Hanna said.


* With additional reporting by Reuters