Many observers narrate the latest crisis in Egypt as a conflict over a contentious Islamist-backed constitution that was drafted in a non-inclusive process, resulting in mass demonstrations by opponents and supporters of President Mohamed Morsi. From a bird’s-eye view, the constitution-drafting process and the outcome of the referendum seem to present the pressing concern driving the demonstrations, which endured through the lead-up to the referendum. The circulating opinions on the ground, however, suggest that the grievances and convictions that were brought to the surface in the wake of the recent impasse speak to deeper questions that transcend the immediate context of the referendum and the “Islamist-secular” spats that animate it. There is little doubt that Morsi`s partisans have set forth a narrative claiming that the underlying clash is a battle of ideas in which “a minority is trying to block the majority from what they aspire to which is Islam,” as a Muslim Brotherhood senior advisor told me. Viewed from the perspective of Egyptians participating in and observing the ongoing conflict, the story appears to be more than just a disagreement over the draft constitution.
“We had hope in President Morsi. We thought he and the Muslim Brotherhood would be bold enough to take on the revolutionary decisions we all—Islamist, secular, old, young, rich poor—dreamed of together during the eighteen days that led to Mubarak`s ouster,” said Ismail Hefzy a forty-four-year-old medical doctor as he strolled the opposition protest parked outside the Presidential palace with his family. Hefzy identified himself as an “ordinary Egyptian Muslim,” who neither associates with staunch secularism nor with political Islam.
Magdy Ashour, a forty-two-year-old steel factory worker who has been a Muslim Brotherhood member for nearly ten years, expresses a different grievance once pressed on the content of the draft constitution: “I think its a fair document, but this constitution is not a revolutionary constitution.” While Ashour has benefitted from the Muslim Brotherhood’s network, as it helped employ many of his family members, he conveys a growing disillusionment with the Brotherhood`s commitment to the revolutionary agenda when he discusses the group`s decisions in the past two years. Ashour had disobeyed the Brotherhood’s instructions by joining other anti-military rule protesters in clashes against security forces during the bloody battle of Mohamed Mahmoud Street of 19-24 November 2011. These clashes led to forty-seven deaths for which Ashour holds the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) responsible, as they were the ruling caretakers during that transitional period and oversaw violent assaults on protesters.
His major criticism of the Brotherhood-backed draft constitution is that it sets the military`s powers and privileges above the reach of civilian accountability and oversight. “We spent the past two years battling the military. It was disappointing to see that the constitution did not even address the military`s problematic status in the country. It is as if we put a rug over the blood they spilled and told them carry on, and that all is forgotten.”
Ashour is one of few within the organization who often acts independently of the Muslim Brotherhood, even if at odds with the group’s official instructions, but ultimately he has decided to side with the Brotherhood position on the referendum and vote to approve the draft constitution.
Aisha Ibrahim, a sixty-three-year-old woman manning a kiosk in Cairo’s poor neighborhood of Sayeda Zeinab, has been struggling to keep her family afloat with finances dwindling since the revolution began. “It is a good day now when we make over fifty pounds.”
She has not participated in any of the constitution dominated demonstrations of the past week, but said: “Since we elected Morsi, we have not seen one positive decision that benefits the poor forgotten people of this country. I thought one of the demands of this revolution was social equality. He has not taken one step to realize that." Ibrahim has not read the constitution but said it is enough that so many people are opposed to it for President Morsi to take pause and address their contestations.
Osama Khalid a forty-two-year-old tourist trinket storeowner in Khan El Khalili, told me he has not sided with either partisan camp over the explosive issue of the constitution, “I am siding with tourism. Whoever brings tourists back to this country, that is who I am following.”
Khalid read the constitution and does not understand the unfolding drama surrounding it. However, he got angrily charged once the topic of the imminent raise in taxes on commodities was mentioned. “We are barely getting by now, how are we supposed to survive inflated prices? If Morsi pushes this through we will not stand for it.”
The tax increase is part of heavily criticized package of economic reforms that Egypt is expected to implement in order to receive a $4.8 billion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). While Osama plans to vote “yes” in the referendum, hoping a push to move the process forward will pave the way for stability, he also sheds fears over Morsi`s economic vision worrying that it will embrace the same neoliberal logic of governance prevalent during the final decade of Hosni Mubarak’s rule.
Youssef Galal, a forty-three-year-old Salafist car salesman I met at a rally in support of President Morsi, told me the constitution was “the best constitution he had ever read,” as he holds high hopes it will usher in the implementation of Sharia law. But he also breaks from support of the Muslim Brotherhood on the issue of the impending reforms associated with IMF loan. “Our hope was that after the revolution we would no longer be slaves to the west. This revolution is meant to bring many freedoms, including Egypt`s economic freedom,” he emotionally explained.
Laila Ibtisam, a thirty-six-year-old paediatrician I met at the opposition protest outside the Presidential Palace, voiced anger over the constitution, which she views as a tool the Muslim Brotherhood will use to enshrine their hegemony. But she also spoke of how Morsi`s past decisions have failed to cater to different factions of society. “He put together an ineffective government made up of Mubarak holdovers and Brotherhood loyalists. They have not made one policy that speaks to revolutionary demands. How can this government bring about the change we are all waiting for, let alone bear the burden of governing Egypt?”
The widespread societal grievances that the constitutional standoff is bringing to the surface are more than just concerns over the articles of an imperfect constitution drafted in the absence of national consensus. They speak to a prevalent sense of alienation that many Egyptians feel, as they keep watching the wielders of power consistently choose their partisan commitments over revolutionary demands for transformative change and social justice. For Morsi’s opponents, the sins of the president and his group did not begin with the constitution or his controversial constitutional declaration. Many Egyptians feel that life has not improved (if not completely deteriorated) since the outbreak of this revolution. Meanwhile, they see a president preoccupied with partisan power struggles and vulgar political jockeying, showing little seriousness in rallying the country behind a national project that speaks to the revolution’s goals of “bread, freedom, and social justice.”