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Polarized Egypt Protests and Prepares for Referendum Vote on Constitution

December 14, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Though largely unified during the Arab Spring, Egyptians find themselves again divided, with liberal and secular groups worried that President Mohammed Morsi and Islamist groups would have too much power if the proposed constitution is passed, and others supporting his actions. Margaret Warner reports.
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MARGARET WARNER: Finally tonight, to Egypt.

Egyptians will go to the polls tomorrow to vote on whether to approve a newly drafted constitution. But the path to that vote has deeply polarized the country.

It’s been nearly two years since exuberant Egyptians, backed by their own military, forced out Hosni Mubarak after three decades in power.

But in recent weeks, the streets outside the palace he once occupied have been the site of counterdemonstrations and clashes between Egyptians who joined forces in early 2011.

Seven people died last week, with hundreds more injured, in hand-to-hand fighting between secular and liberal Egyptians and members of Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.

They were fighting over what the new man in the palace, former Muslim Brotherhood figure, now President Mohammed Morsi, has done to bring about tomorrow’s vote on a new constitution, including a late-November decree granting himself unchecked power until the vote.

That led many to compare him to his reviled predecessor.

MANAL ABDEL AZIZ, Egypt (through translator): I want to say that we protest against Mubarak because he polluted our revolution with blood. Morsi, like Mubarak, he did the same thing.

MARGARET WARNER: Morsi said the decree was needed to ensure Egyptians could vote on the new charter without interference by Mubarak holdovers in the judiciary.

PRESIDENT MOHAMMED MORSI,Egypt (through translator): The revolution has passed, but will not stop. However, I must put myself on a clear path that will lead to the achievement of a clear goal.

MARGARET WARNER: That clear goal is a constitution that reapportions powers among the president, parliament and military, and changes the role played by the Islamic code of Sharia.

Opponents charge it will let the party in power smother the rights of women, minorities, political opponents, and the press.

KHALID ABDALLA, The Mosireen Collective: Right, so people understand, without understanding, without reading the constitutional draft, that this is a power grab.

MARGARET WARNER: Motion picture actor Khalid Abdalla was a leader of the revolution in early 2011. He is now involved in Mosireen, an online video activist group.

KHALID ABDALLA: The constitutional draft that they are proposing to the country is essentially a sugarcoated poisoned pill, in which I wish the sugar was real, but, ultimately, it’s saccharine.

We’re being told that here is a constitution that is going to guarantee your rights. But, actually, what it is, is it’s a road map to ensure Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship and control of power over Egypt for the next 10, 20, 30 years.

MARGARET WARNER: Not so, say Morsi’s backers. They insist there are plenty of new limits on presidential authority.

GEHAD EL HADDAD, Freedom and Justice Party: These checks and balances are a good way forward, not the perfect way that our generation or even our creed as revolutionaries wanted, but certainly a step in the right direction, and a big step at that.

MARGARET WARNER: Gehad El Haddad is a senior adviser to the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party.

GEHAD EL HADDAD: The president doesn’t have most of the powers that he had in the 1971 constitution. The president actually got stripped from about 60 percent to 70 percent of his powers.

All of the powers that he has are put under checks and balances from the parliament of both houses.

SAMER SHEHATA, Georgetown University: It would be unfair to say that this constitution establishes the possibility of dictatorship or anything approaching the authoritarianism of the Mubarak regime.

MARGARET WARNER: Samer Shehata is a professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University.

SAMER SHEHATA: There were articles in the old constitution which made — which didn’t limit presidential terms, and Mr. Mubarak was, essentially, president for life, 29-and-a-half years.

This constitution reduces term length from six years to four years, and stipulates that the president can only be reelected once, two-term limits.

MARGARET WARNER: Opponents also charge the proposed constitution lays a foundation to impose stricter Islamic law over a country with many strains of Islamic thought, from secular to severely religious, and a 10 percent minority of Coptic Christians.

Morsi supporters have in fact been chanting “Bread, freedom and Sharia” at rallies, and this Morsi backer in Alexandria seemed to have that expectation.

SAID KASSEM, Egypt (through translator): I support the president, and I think that opponents fear the growth of the Islamic political current. They know that if the people vote yes, the Islamic constitution will rule for a long time, and that will affect the lives of the opponents of the president.

MARGARET WARNER: It’s a prospect that deeply alarms many more liberal-minded Egyptians.

MAN (through translator): The Brotherhood are here to occupy the country. We will not let them. We don’t need them to teach us what Islam is all about. We are much better Muslims than they are, and at least we aren’t hypocrites.

MARGARET WARNER: Samer Shehata says there are reasons for concern, especially in the role it gives clerics at a leading Islamic university in determining whether a piece of legislation contracts Sharia.

SAMER SHEHATA: Certainly, it emboldens the idea that Islam should play a larger role in politics and also in the social code and in law.

I think everyone in Egypt and anywhere else would say, yes, the Sharia means social justice, it means equality, it means fairness. That’s what my grandmother’s interpretation of the Sharia is.

Unfortunately, there are some in Egypt, Islamists of different stripes, that have a very different interpretation of the Sharia that have to do with limiting the rights of non-Muslims, limiting the rights of women, possibly limiting some kinds of freedoms of speech and so on.

MARGARET WARNER: Even more divisive than the particulars in the constitution has been the way it’s been shaped, a process controlled first by the military, and then the Muslim Brotherhood and new Islamist- dominated parliament, rammed through, opponents say, without regard for the views of other segments of Egyptian society. That divide may be hardest to heal.

Secular and liberal forces say, though some of them were involved in the constitution-writing process, they had little influence against the Islamists. Most ultimately walked out. That’s not dialogue, says Khalid Abdalla.

KHALID ABDALLA: If you’re going to talk, you don’t pull a dagger on me and say, I’m threatening you.

And that’s ultimately the way in which it’s — the process is being guided by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, and it shows that the methodology which they’re using to force this country to accept something that reorganizes the state in a way that entirely fits their agenda and their agenda alone.

MARGARET WARNER: Gehad El Haddad disputes the charge.

GEHAD EL HADDAD: I don’t think it’s a rushed process because the constitutional assembly took six months in the writing, and they didn’t start from scratch either. They started from well-written drafts of various groups in the society itself.

MARGARET WARNER: El Haddad says he understands the opposition’s frustration, but it’s time to move on.

GEHAD EL HADDAD: I think that it — we really need to be responsible and civilized enough and look at the full half of the cup, knowing well that we have another half to fill up.

MARGARET WARNER: Many apolitical Egyptians clearly yearn for their leaders to start filling that half-empty cup.

In Khan el Khalili marketplace, 60-year-old pensioner Muhammad Taha bemoaned the upheaval that has kept tourists and business away.

MUHAMMAD TAHA, Egypt (through translator): We want life to go on. It doesn’t matter if people say yes to constitution or say no.

MARGARET WARNER: But Samer Shehata says it may be hard for Egypt to move on after the vote.

If this referendum is approved, as expected, where does that leave Egyptian society?

SAMER SHEHATA: It produces a very divided, polarized Egyptian society, one in which many of those liberal and secular voices will feel that the constitution is an illegitimate document, and that certainly is not healthy for democratic consolidation in Egypt.

MARGARET WARNER: For an Egypt still waiting for the promise of the revolution to be fulfilled in its citizens’ daily lives, that would be a bleak prospect indeed.

We asked two experts to weigh in on the discontent in Egypt. Read their responses on the Rundown.