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Egypt’s Constitutional Crisis in 2012: How It Happened

Divisions Between Islamists and Secularists


Egypt’s constitutional crisis in late 2012 was a series of political disputes and violent street confrontations over the role of religion, definition of human rights, and presidential powers in the constitution drafted after the ouster of former dictator Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.

Background: Egypt Without Parliament, Without Constitution

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Mohammed Morsi scored a narrow victory at a presidential election in June 2012. However, his mandate was severely constrained by the administrative court’s earlier decision to disband the Islamist-dominated parliament. Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP - the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood) won close to 50% of the vote at parliamentary elections concluded in January 2012. On top of that blow, there was no constitution in place that would define Morsi’s powers vis-à-vis the powerful army and the judiciary, where former Mubarak supporters retain strong influence.

The Trigger: President’s Power Grab On November 22

Morsi attempted to change these facts with the “constitutional declaration” on November 22, granting himself special presidential powers until the passing of the new constitution and fresh parliamentary polls.

The most controversial element of the decree was a clause stipulating that no state institution could repeal Morsi’s legislative decisions, effectively removing judicial oversight over the presidency. Morsi argued that the temporary measure was necessary to “safeguard the revolution”, speed up the drafting of the new constitution, and complete the transition to a fully functioning democracy.

But secular Egyptians decried the move as a coup that invested Morsi with near-absolute power, and tens of thousands of protesters took to the street. Opposition politician Mohammed ElBaradei, said Morsi had “appointed himself Egypt's new pharaoh”. After the FJP’s offices across Egypt came under attack, the Muslim Brotherhood mobilized its supporters, leading to ugly confrontations that revealed the depth of Egypt’s Islamist-secular divide (see this Al Jazeera report).

Constitutional Draft, November 30: Secular Groups Sidelined

Morsi also decreed that the Constituent Assembly – a 100-member panel tasked with drafting the new constitution – should finish its work by January 2013, paving the way to parliamentary elections. But the panel had already been stymied by the boycott of most representatives of secular groups and Coptic Christians, who complained about the Islamists’ dominance over the drafting process.

Fearing that the judiciary might disband the Constituent Assembly, Islamist representatives nevertheless went ahead without their secular colleagues, and finalized the draft constitution by November 30 (see here for full text). A popular referendum on the draft was scheduled for December 15.

This rushed process created several controversial and vaguely articulated clauses that had the secular opposition up in arms:

  • Role of religion: The constitution states that the government should consult Egypt’s senior Muslim clerics on legislative issues related to Islamic Sharia law. It’s not clear just what exactly falls under this category and how the process should function, and critics say it’s the first step toward semi-theocratic rule on the Iranian model.

  • Political freedoms: While the document specifically guarantees basic freedoms of political expression, it also forbids “insults to prophets” and “insults to any person”, supposedly to target blasphemy and defamation. Depending on the legal application, this could erect serious obstacles to free speech, or enable governments to prosecute political opponents.
Read more: How Islamist is Egypt's New Constitution?

Divisive Constitutional Referendum: Lasting Damage?

After two weeks of protest and violence, Morsi scrapped most of the decree on his temporary powers, but insisted that the referendum on the constitution would go ahead as planned. Secular opposition, joined by some liberal Islamist groups, was campaigning for a “no” vote, but Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood backed by ultra-conservative Salafist groups carried the majority of votes, amidst a low voter turnout.

Morsi’s supporters said the process was entirely democratic and legal, accusing the secular opposition of mobilizing the judiciary and the army to make up for their electoral weakness.

But it’s difficult to accept the argument that a simple majority is enough to decide on the key legal document that defines the basic rules of the game everyone should abide by. This highly divisive constitutional document may have expedited the transition from Mubarak’s rule, but in the absence of minimal national consensus it left Egyptians even more polarized.

Also, the vague language on some of the key issues that divide Egypt opened the doors to intense legal battles over the exact meaning of the constitution – not a bright prospect for a fragile democracy with huge economic and social problems.

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