Egypt's Islamists tighten grip on power

Opposition's response ensures that the turmoil of the past two years will continue

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CAIRO -- With the passage of a divisive constitution, Egypt's Islamist leadership has secured its tightest grip on power since Hosni Mubarak's ouster nearly two years ago and laid the foundation for legislation to create a more religious state.

The opposition's response -- a vow to keep fighting the charter and the program of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi -- ensured that the turmoil of the past two years will not end as many, especially the tens of millions of poor craving stability, had fervently hoped.

"The referendum is not the end game. It is only a battle in this long struggle for the future of Egypt," the opposition National Salvation Front said in a strongly worded statement on Sunday.

"We will not allow a change to the identity of Egypt or the return of the age of tyranny," added the front, which claims the new constitution seeks to enshrine Islamic rule in Egypt and accuses the Islamists of trying to monopolize power.

Critics say the new constitution does not sufficiently protect the rights of women and minority groups and empowers Muslim clerics by giving them a say over legislation. Some articles were also seen as tailored to get rid of Islamists' enemies and undermine the freedom of labor unions.

Mr. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most powerful political organization in the post-Mubarak era, claimed early Sunday that the charter it had backed was approved in the two-stage vote with a 64 percent "yes" vote overall. Though official results will not be announced until today, there is little doubt they will confirm the passage.

Once the official result is out, Mr. Morsi is expected to call for a new election of parliament's lawmaking lower house within two months.

And if all of the elections since Mubarak's February 2011 ouster are any predictor, Islamists will again emerge dominant. In the last parliamentary vote in late 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies the Salafis -- ultraconservative Islamists -- won about 70 percent of seats.

If Islamists win the overwhelming majority again, there is nothing to stop their lawmakers from legislating in support of their longtime goal of turning Egypt into an Islamic state. The Salafis will likely seek to enlist the support of the less radical Brotherhood for legislation that would nudge Egypt closer to a religious state.

Khalil el-Anani, a British-based expert on Islamic groups, said the Salafis are likely to insist that every piece of legislation conforms with Islamic Shariah law, especially with regard to questions of morality, culture, personal freedoms and the nation's identity.

"The Salafis will want the Brotherhood to reward them for their campaigning for the 'yes' vote," said Mr. el-Anani. "The Brotherhood, meanwhile, will want to rebuild their image as a credible democratic group after a period in which it seemed in complete alignment with the Salafis."

The Islamists could also move early to pass laws restricting vibrant and outspoken privately owned media organizations that have flourished since the uprising and reported critically on Mr. Morsi and the Brotherhood.

Egypt analyst Michael Hanna said, however, that enduring political tensions will make it difficult for the Islamists to push ahead with any major or sensitive legislation.

"There will be a huge domestic backlash to any unpopular legislation, especially when it comes to the economy or the media," said Mr. Hanna, of New York city's Century Foundation.

Until the lower house is elected and seated, parliament's upper chamber, the Shura Council, will temporarily assume legislative powers and may give priority to more pressing issues.

After the opposition brought hundreds of thousands of protesters to the streets in the past four weeks, including tens of thousands outside Mr. Morsi's presidential palace in Cairo, the Shura Council is expected to hurriedly debate and vote on a legislation that would place tight restrictions on the right to demonstrate.

More serious challenges to Mr. Morsi's leadership may lie ahead. The millions who voted "yes" for the constitution are hoping for stability, jobs and business opportunities that may be slow in coming.

The president will soon have to introduce painful economic measures to salvage a deal with the International Monetary Fund for a $4.8 billion loan that was delayed at Egypt's request because of the political turmoil of the past month.

A glimpse of what may be in store on that front emerged Sunday after Prime Minister Hesham Knadil met with the Cabinet's economic team.

"The current financial and economic situation is in grave danger," said Cabinet spokesman Alaa el-Hadidy. "Leaving things the way they are is not something we can afford to do," he said, hinting at the necessity of structural overhauls. These will include price and tax hikes as well as lifting subsidies on fuel.

Mr. Morsi recently rescinded a package of price and tax hikes hours after he decreed them, saying he did not want to burden poor Egyptians with a higher cost of living. But economists say it is only a question of time before the package is re-introduced.

With foreign currency reserves around half of what they were two years ago and tourism revenues hard hit by resurgent political turmoil, the economy has been in a free-fall for months. Deepening the nation's economic plight is the seemingly endless series of strikes and demands for salary increases and better benefits.

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