New Constitution divides Egypt as economy falters

The process of passing Egypt's Constitution has created more political distrust and anger. Meanwhile, a neglected economy is heading towards grim shoals.

Amr Nabil/AP
Saddam Hassan, a protester injured during clashes with Muslim brotherhood supporters, stands outside his tent near the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, Friday. The official approval of Egypt's disputed, Islamist-backed constitution held out little hope of stabilizing the country after two years of turmoil and Islamist President Mohammed Morsi may now face a more immediate crisis with the economy falling deeper into distress.

New constitutions are usually greeted with great fanfare. They're assumed to carry both the promise of a fresh start and signal that a chaotic transition has come to an end.

But Egypt's new constitution is something else again. Signed into law on Dec. 26 by President Mohamed Morsi, the new charter has become a symbol of a sharply divided nation. Mr. Morsi's opponents charge the passage of the constitution is not the result of a national consensus, but evidence that the Muslim Brotherhood that propelled Morsi to power intends to push its agenda over the heads of secular-leaning and liberal political opponents.

While Morsi extended an olive branch to opponents in a nationally televised speech on Dec. 26, the country is at its most sharply polarized point since longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February 2011. Egypt is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections in about two months, and the runup to that election is more likely to exacerbate Egypt's open political wounds rather than heal them.

What will that mean? More street protests, more chaotic governance, and no short-term fixes for an economy that was weak at the time Mr. Mubarak fell and has gone from bad to worse. The Egyptian pound fell to its lowest point against the dollar in eight years this week, and the currency may say more about what happens to Egypt in the coming years than the contents of the new Constitution. Roughly 30 million of Egypt's 80 million people get by on $2 or less a day, and are heavily reliant on government subsidies. The Egyptian government spent $3 billion on its subsidized bread program alone last year.

And with tourism in the dumps and a collapse in local and foreign investment, the government's ability to meet the most fundamental needs and demands of its citizens has been badly strained. Foreign reserves stood at about $36 billion at the start of 2011. Today, foreign reserves are at about $15 billion.

Finding a solution to Egypt's economic woes won't be easy. But for now, that issue is being pushed to the side, with a loose coalition of secular-leaning groups vowing to fight against the Muslim Brotherhood's agenda. The opposition argues that individual liberties are now threatened by the enshrining of aspects of Islamic law into the Constitution and giving Egypt's powerful military the right to detain and try civilians under some circumstances.

Morsi promised a national dialogue this week and said "mistakes" were made in the drafting of the Constitution, but those remarks fell completely flat as a conciliatory gesture. In the past few weeks he's gotten everything he wanted and critics of the Constitution received zero concessions. Now that he has the document in hand, offers of "dialogue" are being seen as an attempt to put a magnanimous gloss on what was a bare-knuckle, winner-take-all contest that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood just won.

Leftists, so-called liberals, and Egyptians who want a secular approach to the state and Egyptian identity are furious and pondering their next moves. The Brotherhood, meanwhile, is sticking to the game plan that's made it the winner in all four elections held (two referendums, the last parliamentary election, and the presidential) since Mubarak was driven from power in February 2011: superior organization and on-the-ground mobilization. 

While opponents of the Constitution pointed to low turnout in the referendum as a sign of general public dissatisfaction with the document, the Brothers have won both elections with overwhelming turnout and ones with small turnout. With the constitution set, next up are fresh parliamentary elections that the movement is going to pull out all the stops to dominate, just like it did last time.

That annulled parliamentary election has much to do with why Morsi's political opponents trust neither him nor his movement. In 2011, the Brothers loudly proclaimed that they had no intention of dominating Egyptian politics and vowed to contest only about 30 percent of the seats in the next parliament. The movement and its newly minted Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) also promised not to run a candidate for president.

But as the contours of the new Egypt started to emerge, and the prospect of a counter-revolution by military officers looked less likely, the Brothers abandoned both promises. Obviously, Morsi won the presidency. And as for Parliament, the Brother's contested 100 percent of the seats, winning almost half of them.

Now on Morsi's agenda is victory in the parliamentary election. If the Brothers can steamroll the opposition again, they'll hold the presidency, the legislature, and a Constitution written with little input from the country's secular-leaning forces.

But the real challenge is Egypt's weak economy and the increased suffering of its poor. Absent economic improvement, and soon, the turmoil of Egypt's past two years could well end up being overshadowed.

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