Egypt's political crisis will continue long past constitution vote

Egypt's crisis began three weeks ago, but even after yesterday's and the December 22 vote, the battle between Islamists and liberals will trudge on.

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Egypt's latest political crisis has offered a glimpse of what lies ahead for the world's most populous Arab nation as its Islamists and Liberals fight it out, now over a draft constitution and likely the country's identity later.

The crisis began three weeks ago when the president, Mohammed Morsi, issued decrees, since rescinded, that placed him above judicial oversight and gave him almost unrestricted powers. The crisis now centres on the draft charter on which Egyptians are voting today and on December 22. Mr Morsi's liberal opponents say the document gives religious authorities too much influence over legislation, threatens to restrict freedom of expression and opens the door to Islamist control over day-to-day life.

Islamists, on the other hand, have embraced the draft as a victory for Islam.

On the face of it, the conflict is merely a difference of opinions. But, in reality, it is much more than that. It is a fight that has left Egypt more divided than anyone can remember, pushing it to the brink of civil strife. Law and order is near collapse and the economy is being pushed to disastrous new lows.

Just as importantly, the crisis has exposed the lengths to which Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood- the political party in which Mr Morsi was mentored - are prepared to go to control the country and realise their long-time goal of creating an Islamic state. For the rest of the nation, it has shown that the liberals and leftists who engineered the uprising against Hosni Mubarak last year are much stronger than sceptics had been led to believe and enjoy the depth of popular support needed to sustain mass street protests, although persistent divisions within their movement's leadership and lack of organisation continue to hamper its effectiveness.

Egypt's crisis is a far cry from the optimism that swept the nation on February 11 last year, after a stunning, 18-day uprising forced Mr Mubarak to step down, ending his authoritarian rule and ushering in a new era many had hoped would be defined by freedom, respect of human rights and economic prosperity.

Today, there has been talk of a possible civil war, a prospect that was unthinkable just a month ago.

Sensing the danger of widespread and sustained violence - at least 10 people have been killed and nearly 1,000 wounded since the crisis began - Egypt's most prominent reform leader, Mohamed ElBaradei, made an emotional appeal to Mr Morsi on Thursday to postpone the referendum on the draft constitution. He said the vote would raise the "spectre of civil war".

Mr ElBaradei was not being alarmist. The Nobel peace laureate's warning was rooted in the events of the past three weeks when Mr Morsi, top figures from the Brotherhood and their supporters behaved with almost total disregard for the law.

Opponents and supporters of Mr Morsi fought deadly street battles outside his palace in Cairo, a bout of violence initiated by Morsi supporters who set upon peaceful protesters staging a sit-in outside the presidential palace. During fighting that lasted several hours, Mr Morsi's Brotherhood supporters were accused of operating detention and torture centres just outside the palace walls, where dozens of opposition protesters were taken before being released later into police custody. Police stood by without intervening.

The nation's highest court, meanwhile, has been besieged by Islamists to prevent its judges from issuing a ruling on December 2 that was widely expected to dissolve the constitution-drafting panel, which was packed with Islamists. On the western outskirts of Cairo, ultraconservative Salafis who support Mr Morsi have been staging a sit-in outside a media complex housing several influential television networks critical of the Islamists. They are threatening to storm the complex and have singled out several talk-show hosts as possible targets for violence and kidnapping.

Curiously, Mr Morsi has not commented in public about the siege of the Supreme Constitutional Court or the media complex. Instead, rights groups say, he infringed on the due process rights of dozens of suspects detained for questioning about the violence outside his palace, saying they had confessed to being "paid thugs" linked to the Mubarak regime.

It was a throwback to the Mubarak years when the hated and feared security apparatus was accused of human-rights violation and, armed with emergency laws, had little or no regard for the rights of suspects.

Worse still, Mohammed Badie, the leader of the Brotherhood, and the group's chief tactician, Khairat El Shater, jumped into the fray, with each offering the public a rare glimpse of their behind-the-scenes influence on how the country is run.

Mr Badie publicly scolded prosecutors who ordered the release of most detainees because of lack of evidence. Later, the prosecutor-general, a Morsi appointee, removed the judge in charge of the investigation. When the judges union reacted angrily to the decision, the attorney general on Thursday rescinded the decision.

Following up on Mr Morsi's cryptic talk since the crisis began about a "conspiracy" against his rule, Mr El Shater said he was in possession of audio recordings of some of the conspirators. He did not say how he got the recordings, nor what they contained.