Global Viewpoint

Professor Ken Cuno discusses the recent protests and referendum vote in Egypt

12/17/2012  8:00 am

Ken Cuno is a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research interests include the social history of modern Egypt and the Levant, the family, Islamic and secular law, and the U.S. role in the Middle East. Here, Dr. Cuno discusses recent developments in Egypt.


After the January 2011 Revolution, which ended President Hosni Mubarak’s 30 year autocracy, there was cautious optimism for a democratic transition. But now Egypt seems to be more polarized than ever between supporters and opponents of President Muhammad Mursi. Who are the contending groups and how did things become so polarized?

The divide in Egyptian politics has been framed somewhat misleadingly as between “Islamists” and “secularists” or “liberals.” The term Islamist was coined by Western academics in the 1990s to refer to those who desire a political and social order that reflects Islamic principles to one extent or another. In Egypt they run the gamut from religious hard liners, called Salafists, to the comparatively moderate Muslim Brotherhood, and even an Islamist left. The Muslim Brotherhood is the largest and most disciplined Islamist organization, and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) has dominated electoral politics since the Revolution, winning 47 percent of the seats in the November 2011-January 2012 parliamentary elections. An alliance of Salafist parties won another 25 percent of seats. President Mursi resigned from the Muslim Brotherhood to lead the FJP, and then left that post to become the party’s presidential candidate. The core of his supporters and the supporters of the draft constitution now being voted upon are the Brotherhood/FJP, the Salafists, and their sympathizers. The non-Islamist opposition are often called secularists and liberals, though they include the small, liberal Islamist parties that split from the Muslim Brotherhood, and many observers have noted that their discourse is not always that liberal. The opposition won a little less than a fourth of the seats in the parliamentary elections due to lack of a pre-existing grass-roots organization and the difficulty of crafting a message as appealing as their opponents’ religious one. But in the first round of the presidential election in May, the leading non-Islamist candidate, Hamdin Sabbahi, came in a close third behind Mursi and Ahmad Shafiq, a Mubarak-era apparatchik. Mursi went on to win a narrow victory in the second round, in June.

Since then the remnants of the Mubarak regime have not been a significant force in politics. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which had exercised interim authority, made a bid to extend its control after the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) dissolved the parliament over a technical violation of the electoral law. But in August Mursi seized the initiative, forcing the senior officers into retirement and appointing his own Defense Minister and Army Chief of Staff.

The ascendance of a popularly elected president over the military was a positive development, and Mursi made other moves that increased his popularity. But the eclipse of the Mubarak remnants and the military narrowed the political field to a contest between the Islamists and non-Islamists, with the former having the upper hand. Mursi’s presidential power was temporarily unchecked by a parliament, while the Constitutional Constituent Assembly (CCA), appointed by the defunct parliament with an Islamist majority, continued its work. Non-Islamists objected that the CCA was unrepresentative of the nation, and raised fears that it would impose a theocracy on Egypt, while the Islamists insisted that the composition of the CCA reflected the parliamentary vote and hence the popular will.


What was behind the protests leading up to last Saturday’s constitutional referendum?

The anti-Mursi protests were in response to his “constitutional declaration” of November 22, which blocked judicial oversight of his actions as well as of the CCA, which then rushed to finalize a draft constitution by the end of the month. It is that draft that is being voted upon in the referendum. There were two factors behind these moves. First, the CCA had a deadline to complete its work by the end of November, according to an interim constitutional amendment approved by the voters in March 2011. Second, the SCC was considering a suit to invalidate the CCA. This was considered a serious possibility, since an earlier constituent assembly was invalidated by the judiciary prior to the SCC’s dissolution of the parliament. Islamist rhetoric portrayed the judiciary, all Mubarak-era appointees, as trying to block the popular will, while some non-Islamists spoke of the courts and even the military as a last line of defense against the imposition of theocratic rule. Mursi may have been alarmed by a mass walkout by the non-Islamist and Christian members of the CCA in late November (nearly one-fourth of its members), for a similar boycott preceded the invalidation of the previous constituent assembly. The non-Islamists on the CCA complained of Islamist “monopolization” of the deliberations, though they did achieve some compromises. Mursi’s declaration was intended to pre-empt an SCC ruling against the CCA that was rumored to be imminent, and it also extended the deadline for the CCA to finish its deliberations for another two months.

In his declaration and subsequent moves Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood seriously overreached and brought the country to the verge of civil conflict. His constitutional declaration galvanized the opposition, several of whom, including Hamdin Sabbahi’s party, banded together in a National Salvation Front (NSF). The opposition objected to various aspects of the draft constitution, but they were mainly protesting the process by which the draft constitution would be put before the voters. In the days following the constitutional declaration the NSF and other opponents staged mass demonstrations in Tahrir Square and outside the presidential place. Initially, Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators attacked opposition protesters outside the presidential palace, though later Brotherhood demonstrations were staged in separate locales. Possibly in retaliation several Brotherhood offices around the country were torched. Brotherhood demonstrators also surrounded the Supreme Constitutional Court, preventing its members from convening and forcing a postponement of their decision on the CCA. Mursi and his officials fueled the crisis by accusing opponents of conspiring with foreign enemies and corrupt elements of the old regime. His supporters in the streets, who also supported the draft constitution, chanted slogans for Islam and Sharia. Opposition leaders and demonstrators upped the ante from opposition to the constitutional declaration and the referendum to the deposition of Mursi. Neither side condemned the acts of violence inflicted on the other.

Mursi eventually rescinded his constitutional declaration and called for a dialog with the opposition, though the constitutional referendum was scheduled and the SCC continued to be suspended. The NSF and most other opponents refused to meet with him unless he postponed the referendum. Once it was clear that the vote would proceed, they spent several days debating whether to boycott or to urge a no vote, eventually choosing the latter. Much of the energy of the opposition had dissipated by Saturday’s vote, but the crisis has left a lot of bitterness in its wake.


Given that President Mursi comes from the Muslim Brotherhood, is there any validity to fears that Egypt is moving toward a system like Iran’s?

Not really, and it is irresponsible for the opposition to make that claim. The objectionable articles in the draft constitution concerning the role of Islam as a source of legislation, women’s rights, and freedom of religion are either carried over from the 1971 constitution or represent little change from past practice. For example, the wording of Article 2, which enshrines the principles of Islam as the main source of law, is unchanged. The Salafists tried and failed to substitute the more specific term “provisions” in place of “principles.” A new Article 4 states that the senior scholars of the al-Azhar seminary shall be consulted in matters pertaining to Islamic law, but this enshrines a practice from the previous era, and it merely gives clerics a voice in the legislative process – which they would have in any event – not a veto over it. Article 219, also new, states that the principles of Islam shall be understood in reference to mainstream Sunni jurisprudence. Together, Articles 4 and 219 seem designed to prevent the establishment of a theocracy or turning the clock back to the Middle Ages. Finally, Article 5 enshrines the principle of popular sovereignty; the sovereignty of God, a concept associated with Islamist extremism, is not mentioned.

Much attention was focused on a draft article carried over from the 1971 constitution that committed the state to insure the equality of women with men in political, cultural, economic, and social life, so long as that did not violate the provisions of Islamic law. Some Islamists objected to equality, while non-Islamists worried that the reference to Islamic law would be used to roll back women’s rights. As a compromise, this article was eliminated from the final draft. Other, remaining articles assert the equality of citizens without qualification. Article 10, which commits the state to “preserve the genuine character of the Egyptian family” and to permit the balancing of “the duties of a woman toward her family and her work,” is a revision of articles appearing in the 1956 and 1971 constitutions. In the domestic sphere, family law is based on Islamic law, and in spite of the absence of gender equality women’s rights in the family have been advanced in recent decades – in consultation with the senior scholars of al-Azhar! The debate was and will continue to be over gender equality in the public sphere; in the domestic sphere women’s rights issues are framed differently, in terms of the proper interpretation of Islamic law.

Critics of the draft constitution have rightly raised concerns over Articles 43 and 44, which guarantee freedom of worship to the Abrahamic religions and prohibit insulting the prophets. The former leaves the door open to discrimination against other faiths, including the small Bahai community in Egypt. The latter implies there will be prosecution for blasphemy. In the 1980s, Islamist lawyers cited Article 2 in suits against artists and academics whom they accused of blasphemy and apostasy, until the government changed the rules to prevent these vigilante actions. Since the revolution at least one case was brought by an Islamist lawyer against a prominent actor, whose conviction for insulting Islam was overturned on appeal. Currently a self-described atheist of Christian background has been charged with blasphemy.

The draft constitution has numerous flaws (see this analysis), the most worrisome in the areas of freedom of worship and of speech (insulting other individuals is also prohibited). But it does not add up to a blueprint for an Islamic republic. Some press freedoms are strengthened, the presidency is term limited, and the power of the parliament is enhanced as a check against the presidency.


According to unofficial results voters approved the draft constitution in the first round of the referendum last Saturday. Does that mean the constitution is likely to win approval, and if so, how will that change things?

Supporters as well as opponents expect the constitution to be approved. In the first round the reported “yes” vote was 56.5 percent, with at least two governorates, including Cairo, voting “no.” Since the more urbanized areas voted in the first round, the “yes” vote should be larger in the next round. The next step will to elect a parliament, in February.

The large “no” vote undoubtedly expresses more than the opposition’s criticisms of the draft constitution and the process by which it was put before the people. This is the first opportunity citizens have had to express their confidence in, or alternatively their disapproval of President Mursi’s performance since his election in June. In the absence of scientific opinion surveys, press interviews suggest that many people are concerned primarily with economic and law-and-order issues, which have been neglected during the months of political crisis. Some “no” votes may also have been cast as a protest against Mursi’s authoritarian move. Similarly, many “yes” votes were undoubtedly cast in the hope of moving forward toward some sort of normalcy, and not necessarily as an endorsement of Mursi, the FJP, or an Islamist agenda.

The recent crisis has exposed a gulf between Islamists and non-Islamists. It is a hopeful sign that, since the January Revolution, successive ballots have been relatively free, fair, and peaceful, with the results widely accepted as legitimate. But it is not clear whether Islamist and non-Islamist deputies in the future parliament will be able to work together productively to address the many problems facing Egypt. So far both sides have preferred the power play over the promotion of democratic values and procedures. The non-Islamist opposition missed an opportunity for positive input by refusing to meet with Mursi last week.


Upon taking office, Mursi indicated Egypt would honor all international treaties, including the decades-old peace with Israel. Has this position changed at all since Israel conducted military operations in Gaza?

No. Mursi’s government is openly sympathetic to Hamas and the population of Gaza, and this has created more space for other regional players like Qatar and Turkey to make similar gestures of solidarity with the Gaza Palestinians, if not with Hamas. But Egypt played a leading role in negotiating the cease fire between Israel and Hamas, averting an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza.

 If  Mursi succeeds in establishing constitutional government and political stability in the new year, and if he can re-establish security in the Sinai, then Egypt may take a more active role in reconciling Hamas and Fatah and in promoting the Palestinian cause internationally.