When Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi last spoke to his nation on Dec. 6, he was angry and defiant. He deplored the deadly clashes between opposing protesters outside the presidential palace while ignoring his own Muslim Brotherhood’s role in sparking that violence. And he made vague accusations — not dissimilar to those once uttered by the toppled dictator President Hosni Mubarak — that his opponents were being paid by sinister foreign interests.
That appearance built on an earlier one in late November after Morsi issued constitutional decree greatly expanding his powers, thus appearing to be President of the Islamists rather than the elected leader of all Egyptians. He spoke before a cheering crowd of supporters in front of the presidential palace while opposition protesters battled police in Tahrir Square. Even senior Brotherhood officials later admitted that it would have been better for Morsi to address the nation on more neutral terms.
But on Wednesday night, in the wake of a victorious ratification of his controversial constitution, Morsi presented a far more polished and conciliatory face. He hailed the constitution as a major victory for the new democratic Egypt and spent much of his time offering an olive branch to the non-Islamist forces who have grown increasingly bitter and hostile toward his rule.
Morsi on Wednesday night looked like a man in the home stretch of an arduous journey with the most difficult part already past him. He spoke with regret of the “difficult decisions” he has been forced to make in the past two months in order to bring this constitution to fruition. At several points he offered veiled apologies for all the eggs he had to break in order to make the constitutional omelet.
“It’s a healthy phenomenon to have these differences of opinion and ideas,” Morsi said. “To those who voted no and to those who voted yes, I offer my thanks.”
Exactly how healthy the past two months in Egypt have been is definitely a matter of opinion. The constitutional endgame has spawned enormous amounts of bad blood between Morsi’s mostly Islamist allies and the newly unified and emboldened opposition. It has also burned almost every bridge of communication between the two sides.
“I feel there has been a serious breach of trust,” said Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, one of the country’s most prominent human-rights NGOs. “There are people we used to think were the reformist wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, and now we realize there is no such thing … There are no channels of communication right now.”
Morsi and his advisers seem completely aware of this disconnect. He is urging his critics to come to the negotiating table for national reconciliation talks. But it’s an open question whether anyone of any political significance will answer Morsi’s call. The National Salvation Front — the umbrella opposition group led by Mohamed ElBaradei, former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa and the third-place presidential finisher in June elections, Hamdeen Sabbahi — is remaining noncommittal. An NSF spokesman has said the group is considering Morsi’s offer. But Sabbahi, in an interview with the Turkish Anadolu news agency, made it clear that he considers this constitution an illegitimate and temporary inconvenience. “The referendum was manipulated. However, we’ll deal with it as a fact. We’ll struggle to cancel it,” Sabbahi said.
Final results from the nationwide referendum ended up giving ammunition to both sides. Morsi and his allies can point to the healthy 63.8% yes vote as proof of an adequate, if not overwhelming, national consensus. The opposition meanwhile, can point to the surprisingly low 32.9% voter turnout as evidence of widespread lack of faith and enthusiasm in the entire process. Morsi ratified the constitution into law late Tuesday night as soon as the final referendum results were in. But far from producing any sort of feeling of national unity, Egypt’s constitutional drama seems to have set the stage for several more months of partisan screaming matches heading straight into fresh parliamentary elections — which should take place by the end of February.
While Morsi works to manage the political fallout of his constitutional campaign, economic issues will also take priority in the short term. Egyptians are fond of using the term wheel of production as a slightly Stalinist catchall reference to the country’s postrevolutionary economic malaise. Much of the proconstitution campaigning — at least that wasn’t pinned around religious ideology — emphasized the new constitution as a vital step toward restarting that wheel. In the week prior to the referendum, the Muslim Brotherhood placed pamphlets in mailboxes around the country claiming, “A Yes Vote Means Things Will Settle Down and the Wheel of Production Will Start Turning Again.”
But it will take more that a new constitution to improve Egypt’s economic picture. The country’s foreign reserves have plummeted, the Egyptian pound on Wednesday fell to its lowest point in eight years, and the government — fearing a wave of capital flight — has banned citizens from leaving the country with more than $10,000 in cash. Negotiations for a much needed $4.8 billion IMF loan have been put on hold due to the constitutional crisis. Earlier this week Standard and Poor’s dropped Egypt’s long-term credit rating to a B- (on par with officially bankrupt Greece) and warned that a further downgrade was likely if there was a “significant worsening of the domestic political situation.”
Morsi, in his Wednesday speech, made it clear that addressing the economy will be one of Prime Minister Hisham Qandil’s top priorities going forward. But government ministers have tried to sound an optimistic note, saying that the economic picture should rapidly improve now that the dirty work of the constitution is out of the way.
“The government reassures all about the economic situation,” said Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Mohamed Mahsoub on Wednesday. “We don’t have an economic problem; essentially it is a political problem that is affecting the economic situation.”
Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist and author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation.
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