x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Letter from Cairo: Pillars of Egypt shaken in its turmoil

In the outpouring of passions after the recent decrees by Mohammed Morsi giving himself enormous power, Egyptians face questions about the future of their country. Will it transform into an Islamic state or a secular one guided by Islam?

The pillars of the modern state in Egypt have been badly shaken and, at times, looked close to collapse in the month since Egypt's Islamist president gave himself expanded powers.

The competence and wisdom of the president, Mohammed Morsi, have been challenged daily by a large segment of the public and the media. The judiciary is in disarray, with many judges and prosecutors in open rebellion against him. The military, long seen as the guardian of the nation's stability, has warned it would not stand idly by if the crisis persisted.

The police, hated under Hosni Mubarak, appear torn between loyalty to its new patrons, Mr Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, and a strong desire to shrug off its image as a tool of suppression used at will by the previous government.

It is all a far cry from the country Egyptians had grown accustomed to during decades of de facto military rule, when state institutions mostly functioned quietly behind a facade of stability.

Much of that was shattered during last year's uprising against Mubarak's rule. The latest crisis has created what could be an enduring schism.

It has introduced new and dangerous ways of expression. Since the beginning of the month, Islamists have besieged the nation's highest court to prevent judges from entering and issuing what they fear would be a verdict against their interests.

In another incident, they surrounded a media complex in a bid to change the editorial policies.

Just as ominous has been Brotherhood leaders dispensing with their traditional caution when speaking about the country's large Christian community. They are now charging that the majority of protesters against Mr Morsi's decrees are Christians, suggesting a conspiracy.

This shift is taking place at a time when the Coptic Orthodox church and smaller denominations are dealing with Egypt's political crisis in an uncharacteristically assertive manner, withdrawing their six representatives from the Islamist-dominated panel that drafted the new constitution and boycotting a "national dialogue" initiated by Mr Morsi.

While some dismiss the tumult of the past month as the teething pains of the transition to democracy, most Egyptians are alarmed by what has occurred since Mr Morsi issued his decrees that placed him above oversight of any kind, extending immunity from the courts to the constitutional panel.

The decrees, since rescinded, have sent hundreds of thousands of Mr Morsi's supporters and opponents out on the streets and led to deadly clashes between the two sides. As the crisis continues, the new constitution has become the focus, with the liberal opposition saying it restricts freedoms and gives clerics a say over legislation.

Islamists defend it as a well-balanced charter that would bring stability to the country.

The charter was put to a two-phase, nationwide referendum. On December 15, some 56 per cent of voters in 10 of Egypt's 27 provinces, including Cairo and Alexandria, said "yes" to the draft, but with a turnout of just 32 per cent in a vote marred by allegations of improprieties. Voters in the remaining 17 provinces will cast their ballots today.

The outcome of the referendum, while important, is unlikely to resolve the country's crisis, the worst since Mubarak's downfall.

With the country more divided than anyone can remember, the crisis is now about whether Egypt becomes more Islamic - and eventually an Islamic state - or retains what is left of its secular traditions while giving Islam a more prominent place in society.

It is a choice that no one envisaged during the jubilation and optimism that prevailed when Mubarak stepped down 22 months ago in an uprising engineered by liberals and leftists, but which led to the Islamists comfortably winning parliamentary elections nearly a year ago and the presidency in June.

The prospect of a long, bitter and likely violent fight over Egypt's future has become all the more real because of the recent emergence of organised bands of Muslim Brotherhood thugs that have attacked opposition protesters outside Mr Morsi's palace. The president's supporters, according to videos posted on social networking sites and the public testimony of victims, also detained and tortured his opponents outside the walls of the palace before handing him over to the police.