Will Egypt’s Liberals Ever Win?

They can, but they must forget Shariah and focus on painting Egypt’s Islamist president as just another Mubarak.

Tens of thousands of protesters rallied in Cairo as the opposition piled pressure on Islamist President Mohamed Morsi.
Egyptians protest in Cairo’s Tahrir square on Nov. 30, 2012

Photograph by Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images.

After working with Egypt’s president, Mohammad Morsi, to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas last month, President Barack Obama reportedly came away impressed by his fellow former university professor’s pragmatism and “engineer’s precision.” But whatever the Egyptian president’s intellectual gifts, a good memory is clearly not one of them. After having barely eked out in a victory in last June’s presidential election, with a significant assist from liberal and left-leaning revolutionaries who saw Morsi’s opponent as a throwback to the old regime, the new president has thumbed his nose at his erstwhile allies and his promises of democracy. On Nov. 22, he issued a decree granting himself extraordinary, unquestioned authority, and last week his allies in the constitutional assembly rammed through a draft constitution that includes expanded presidential powers, protections for the military, and a highly illiberal social agenda.

Egypt’s liberals—often rightly maligned as hapless and uncoordinated—have seized the opportunity presented to them by Morsi’s overreach, and surprised everyone with a series of massive protests in Tahrir Square. And elsewhere in Egypt, clashes between opponents of the president and his supporters have resulted in at least two deaths and the torching of several Muslim Brotherhood offices. But on Saturday, Morsi’s allies reminded us why the Muslim Brotherhood is so often referred to as Egypt’s most organized and popular force, convening a gargantuan rally of their own in front of Cairo University. Estimates of the size of the Islamist crowd—much of which was bussed in from outside of the city, and which at one point reportedly chanted, “Oh Badia [the Muslim Brotherhood’s leader], you command us and we obey!”—varied. The Brotherhood’s political wing claimed that more than 2 million people turned out to support the president but independent observers pegged the number at closer to 200,000. After the demonstration, hundreds of Islamist activists besieged the country’s constitutional court to prevent the judges of that body from attempting to countermand the president’s actions. The man who once promised to be the president of all Egyptians has proven uncommonly adept at dividing them.

If ever there was a time for Egypt’s liberals—really a coalition between genuine liberals, socialists, and some of the less objectionable Mubarak loyalists—to seize the momentum from the Islamists, this is it. A National Salvation Front, led by progressive politician Hamdeen Sabahi, former International Atomic Energy Agency Chairman Mohamed ElBaradei, and former Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, has been formed, and has begun gearing up for acts of civil disobedience. The liberals have demanded that Morsi withdraw his decree, invalidate the draft constitution, and convene a new constitution-writing committee that is not controlled by Islamists. Judging by his past behavior, the president is unlikely to be responsive. Rather, Morsi intends to have this new Islamist-crafted constitution endorsed by the public with a hasty referendum on Dec. 15. And though there is some chance that the judges will throw a wrench in Morsi’s plan by refusing to oversee the constitutional referendum, Morsi will almost certainly circumvent them. Thus, liberals are soon going to find that they have no choice but to try to convince Egyptians to vote no in the upcoming referendum.

That will be hard. The conventional wisdom holds that Egyptians generally vote yes in referenda, although, admittedly, most of our evidence for this claim comes from the rigged polls from Hosni Mubarak’s days. But more importantly, there are large portions of the constitution that most Egyptian voters will find unobjectionable—specifically its moral and social provisions. In order to beat back the document, liberals are going to have to suspend their distaste for the religious conservatism that is the Brotherhood’s bread and butter, and instead focus on the ways that the president and his new constitution promise to re-establish the kind of autocracy that Egyptians thought they had overthrown in 2011. 

To be sure, the new constitution’s cultural and religious provisions are retrograde. For example, for years, Islamists had argued that Article 2 of the prerevolution constitution, which made “the principles of Islamic law the main source of legislation,” wasn’t strong enough. The new constitution preserves the old language, but now contains a new article, that defines the “principles of Shariah” in the very strict terms of Muslim Sunni jurisprudence. Liberals fear that seventh-century Islamic punishments for things like theft, adultery, and blasphemy are not far behind. At the very least, liberal and non-Muslim parliamentarians unschooled in the finer points of Sunni legal scholarship may find themselves at a distinct disadvantage in the lawmaking process. And though Article 81 of the new constitution does declare that “citizens rights and freedoms are inalienable and cannot be suspended or reduced,” it then goes on to say that these freedoms can only be practiced “as long as they don’t contradict the principles set out in the section on state and society in this constitution.” This is a long way of saying that Egyptians are free, as long as they don’t violate the government’s interpretation of Islamic law. 

Similarly, whereas the old constitution contained an article prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender (among other things), the new constitution removes any mention of women as a protected class. Instead, it views women primarily as mothers (or potential mothers), declaring in Article 10 that the state will help “reconcile the responsibilities of the woman toward her family and her public work.” And though the constitution contains the requisite language guaranteeing freedom of speech, it places religiously defined limits on that speech. For example, Article 44 prohibits anyone from insulting prophets of the Abrahamic faiths, leaving undefined what precisely constitutes an “insult.” And Article 48, which regulates freedom of the press, says that the press is free only as long as it doesn’t contradict the principles on which the state and society are based—meaning the principles of Shariah.

But while none of this is a recipe for a liberal, modern society, neither is it particularly offensive to most Egyptians. For example, in a nationally-representative survey conducted by one of the authors in November 2011, 67 percent of the more than 1,500 Egyptians polled disapproved of the idea of having a female president (with 30 percent believing women were unsuited for any public position); 80 percent believed the Egyptian government should set up a council of religious scholars to ensure that law conforms to the Shariah; and 75 percent approved of the idea that religious authorities should be allowed to censor the media. Of course, these kinds of mass opinion surveys are inherently limited—sometimes people lie about what they want. But they suggest that if liberal activists focus on making the case that the Muslim Brotherhood’s new constitution is too Islamic or conservative, they will lose.

Instead, liberals need to focus on what has worked for them in the past—organizing to oppose unchecked power. It was Mubarak’s steady, ceaseless centralization of authority that brought out the crowds nearly two years ago, and Morsi’s recent power grab has the potential to do the same. After all, there is something deeply reminiscent of the old regime and the way it did business in Morsi’s declaration that his decisions are “final and binding and cannot be appealed by any way or to any entity,” and his arrogating to himself the power to “take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution.”

Similarly, the new constitution contains within it all sorts of authoritarian provisions, allowing the country’s liberal forces to counter the president without exposing themselves to the charge that they want a Godless, hedonistic Egypt. For example, the new charter limits the rights of workers to organize. Egyptian workers have struggled in recent years to establish genuinely independent labor unions, and they were a driving force in the movement that brought down Mubarak. One would have expected, then, that the new constitution would reflect their aspirations. Instead, it restricts the formation of trade unions “to only one per profession,” and contains lukewarm language on the right to strike, saying only that worker actions will be regulated by the law (opening up the possibility of restrictions). On Nov. 24, the president issued a law increasing the government’s control over the country’s largest trade union, further suggesting that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Egypt will not be friendly to organized labor. 

Morsi and his fellow Islamists can also be challenged on the way their new constitution continues the decades-old Egyptian tradition of cosseting the military. This represents a flip-flop of sorts for the Brotherhood, which in November 2011 held large rallies in Tahrir to protest a set of constitutional principles proposed by the country’s generals to preserve military independence from civilian authority, among other things. One of the provisions the military wanted to include prohibited parliament from discussing the military’s budget. Though Brotherhood members had condemned the generals’ move as leading to “militarization of the state,” the new constitution includes similar language, giving oversight of the military not to parliament, but to a 15-member National Defense Council, a majority of which is made up of generals.

More damningly, though the Brotherhood had long declared itself opposed to the odious practice of hauling civilians before military tribunals, the new constitution contains a provision allowing just that: Article 198 declares that civilians can be tried by military courts for crimes that “harm” the armed forces. It is difficult to see how this constitution could prevent the Mubarak-style abuses, such as the trial of Ahmed Mustafa, a 20-year-old who was detained in March 2010 for writing about nepotism in the armed forces, or the November 2010 case of Ahmed Bassiouni, whom a military court sentenced to six months in jail for Facebook posts on military recruitment procedures. Of course, many Egyptians respect the military and may find these provisions acceptable. However, Egyptian liberals can, at the very least, use these U-turns to charge the president and the Brotherhood with the hypocrisy one usually associates with the old regime.

None of this will be easy. Though the liberals have demonstrated that they can bring out a crowd—perhaps forever putting to rest the Brotherhood’s conceit that only Islamists can organize the million-man marches that have become a fixture of post-Mubarak politics—the next phase of the game will require more than spectacular rallies. The liberals need to figure out what to say about the constitution to the millions of Egyptians who don’t necessarily share their fine liberal sensibilities, and then they have to make sure that they say it often and loudly enough to get voters to reject it at the polls. And they must do all of this in less than two weeks. 

If you’ve followed the twists and turns in Egypt’s 20-month democratic odyssey—particularly the way the country’s liberals have been repeatedly outplayed by Islamists—you could be forgiven for being pessimistic about the liberals’ prospects of pulling this off. But the newfound energy in the hitherto moribund liberal camp, and the show of unity between perennially divided leaders like ElBaradei, Moussa, and Sabahi, may be evidence that the non-Islamists are finally making their way up the political learning curve. Whether they’ve learned enough to beat the Muslim Brotherhood is an open question. But one thing is clear: It’s exam time.