Egypt's constitution could be Brotherhood's undoing

The Muslim Brotherhood may think its constitution will keep their political competitors out. In reality, it is only likely to box the Brotherhood in.

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Egypt's constitutional referendum is halfway through and already polarising the country. Unsurprisingly, the Muslim Brotherhood, the political movement close to the ruling Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), has been talking up the slim favourable majority so far tallied as a legitimate expression of the political will of the Egyptian people.

The vast number of Egyptians who have voted "no" doubtless feel differently, especially as their politics will be dominated by a document ratified by barely 10 per cent of the total population (once turnout is factored in). More people apparently voted for Hosni Mubarak as president in 2005 (although the results are questionable).

President Mohammed Morsi seems torn between using the power of government to promote the narrow interests of the Muslim Brotherhood on one side, and seeking to lead a genuinely inclusive transition away from military rule on the other. A charitable interpretation of his months in office would be that he has tried to build coalitions but, given the fractious nature of post-revolution Egypt, has encountered roadblocks and defaulted to pleasing those who support him most.

Many Egyptians are not inclined to view his actions charitably. Indeed, his failure to communicate his intentions to all Egyptians makes a charitable reading, of his domestic actions at least, appear naive.

It is this balancing of major interests that the constitution most reflects - a nod to Islam for the Brotherhood and their supporters, and the enshrinement of a permanent post for the army to the generals. The hard truth for the coalition of liberals, youth and opposition forces, some of them Brotherhood members themselves, is that they simply don't hold enough sway for Mr Morsi to give in to their demands.

But without apparently realising it, the president is preparing the ground for the Brotherhood's undoing. What Mr Morsi doesn't seem to have grasped adequately is that the dominance of the Brotherhood is not assured indefinitely. Their organisational heft and ability to connect with ordinary Egyptians puts them head and shoulders above any other political movement in the country. But that dominance may not last.

What has marked out the Brotherhood across the region is the patience of the movement, during long years of repression. But now in power, the group, via its political party FJP, appear determined to hold as much power as possible - indeed, to institutionalise their power by setting up favourable political institutions. That is understandable, because the group is unlikely to get a second chance to write a constitution. But in trying to create a favourable framework the group is setting itself up to fail.

By moving so swiftly and in an openly partisan way, they are creating unnecessary opposition. Earlier this month, when Brotherhood supporters surrounded the palace to defend Mr Morsi against demonstrators, they looked less like Egyptians defending a head of state and more like a party defending its own appointee. Those who saw parallels with Hizbollah - with its fleet of unmarked SUVs, private communications network and own security force - may have overstated the case, but were not far off.

Who could have imagined that Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh - a former senior Brotherhood leader in an organisation famed for discipline - and Mohamed ElBaradei would find themselves on the same side, against the Brotherhood? The previously argumentative opposition now have an issue around which to coalesce. Mr Morsi and the FJP could have used the purported "national dialogue" to persuade some opponents to join them, splitting the ranks of those opposed to a "yes" vote on the constitution.

Worse, from the perspective of the Brotherhood, they have given up their most powerful rallying cry: they have allowed themselves to be painted as the powerful, as the establishment, when their selling point, for so many years, was their distance from power. That mere perception may prove a long-term drain on their support.

In addition, by attempting to enshrine a significant role for religion in the constitution, the group is putting itself at the mercy of the Salafist wing of their supporters, to say nothing of the Salafist parties that will contest the coming elections. These groups will always be more literal, always be more hardline - and likely to bleed support from the Brotherhood-backed parties.

The Brotherhood has long sold itself to the Egyptian people as being less corrupt and more competent. But that competence will be tested in its creation of jobs, its handling of unemployment, its growing of the economy. By setting out religious lines on which future elections can be contested, as their constitution does, the Brotherhood may think it is creating a framework for them to always dominate politics. But in fact, they are setting up a system in which they will forever be buffeted by minor demands from the Salafists, while the larger demands of regional politics and economics take a back seat.

It does not take a leap of imagination to realise that when that happens, many voters, even if conservative, even if religious, even if part of the Brotherhood, will decide not that the Salafists are asking the wrong questions, but that the Brotherhood are offering the wrong answers. The Brotherhood may think the constitution will keep their political competitors out. In reality, it is only likely to box the Brotherhood in.

On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai