Celebrations fade as constitutional crisis edges closer in Cairo

An unlikely coalition has formed between the Brotherhood and left-leaning revolutionary groups.

Jubilant scenes on Tahrir Square, as the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Mohammed Morsi was announced Egypt’s first post-Mubarak president, were dulled as the future of the country’s recently-dissolved parliament and the constitution-drafting body were left hanging in the balance after crucial rulings were postponed on Tuesday.

Consequently, thousands have remained on Cairo’s flashpoint square.

“Of course Tahrir’s sit-in is celebratory but it’s a victory that is soured by the recent wave of strong actions from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF),” explained former Brotherhood member Mohamed Farouk. He is member of the Board of Trustees of the Revolution, a collation of revolutionary and political forces currently manning Tahrir’s central stage.

The ruling military junta controversially dismantled parliament on 14 June after the High Constitutional Court ruled Parliamentary Elections Law unconstitutional. As the Constituent Assembly was elected by the now defunct legislative body, it too was expected to be disbanded.

In the midst of these contentious decisions, on 18 June, the SCAF issued amendments to the military-authored Constitutional Declaration, which took the place of Mubarak’s now-abrogated 1971 constitution on 30 March last year.

The addendum saw presidential powers significantly reduced and the junta awarded some legislative and executive powers – which many dubbed a “military coup”.

Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court was expected to announce on Tuesday whether these actions were in fact legal but instead adjourned the session until July for the parliament and Constitutional Declaration decision, and September for the future of the Constituent Assembly.

Subsequently an improbable coalition of the Brotherhood and left-leaning revolutionary groups, including the April 6 Youth Movement and the Revolution Youth Coalition, continue to protest against the recent actions.

Quranic verses blend in with football-styled protest chants, as revolutionaries, ultra-conservative Salafists, leftist groups, hardcore football supporters and ordinary families vow to uphold the sit-in.

“We are not leaving the square until our demands, like the reinstatement of the parliament and keeping the Constituent Assembly as is, are achieved,” said Farouk.

“The weight of Tahrir, the Brotherhood organisation and Mohamed Morsi as president we’re hoping will be enough to help us reach our goals,“ added Shaima’ Abul-Leil, communications officer of the Board of Trustees of the Revolution.

Morsi and the organisation backing him seem to be the unlikely figureheads of Egypt’s continued revolutionary struggle against military power.

Just five months ago secular groups bemoaned the significant 43 per cent win by the Brotherhood in the parliamentary elections, their closed-door meetings with the SCAF, and the Islamist majority dominating the constitution-drafting assembly.

“I cannot believe I’m in the streets fighting alongside a conservative Islamist organisation which repeatedly abandoned us during clashes [with the police and military] last year and in 2012,” says Sara, 20, a political sciences student.  

Never have the stakes been so high, or the demands so aligned, for both the Brotherhood and the secular revolutionary forces.

Poisoned chalice

Morsi has inherited a seemingly-impossible task as Egypt's new president.

In the contentious amendments to the Constitutional Declaration, the SCAF ensured that it was untouchable and ungovernable by the president.

Contrary to the now-defunct 1971 Constitution, the SCAF would become the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, its incumbent members could not be changed and it would decide on all issues relating to the military.

Even the defence minister would remain unchanged, even though the president is allowed to appoint the cabinet.

In practice, this makes the SCAF a fourth arm of government, with, as the amended document ensured, super-presidential powers.

The SCAF has the right to appoint a constituent assembly, should the current assembly, whose very existence is under threat due to July’s expected court ruling, “face any obstacles preventing it from completing its work.” It can also reject constitutionals articles.

This would allow the military to have a serious hand in the drafting of the constitution, which will outline the president’s job description.

In the absence of parliament the military council awarded itself powers to legislate in the addendum.

In addition, key decisions were made by the military before the presidential election results were even announced.

For example, Egypt’s 2012/13 annual state budget, which was drafted by the military-appointed cabinet and signed off by the SCAF, will be applied on the first day of the presidency.

Despite the amendment and approval of the budget being a parliamentary privilege, the legislative authority only received the “austerity” budget, which was submitted two months late, a week before parliament was dissolved.

This sparked mass uproar amongst the MPs, particularly from the Brotherhood’s political party, who called the action a “conspiracy” ensuring the “downfall” of the coming government.

Legal experts claim that there may be re-elections after the new constitution is drafted, as the presidential mandate, Morsi will swear to, will have changed.

There is even money in the new budget assigned to the electoral commission to cover this, despite the fact that at the time of drafting the financial document, the parliament was still in place, and the presidential elections in the pipeline.

Undermining democracy

Tuesday’s postponement of the court rulings is a damning blow to the parliament, the constitution and consequently to the presidency as well.

The ruling on whether the current Constituent Assembly will remain in its current formation has been delayed until 4 September, at the very end of the constitution-drafted process.

It could be argued that should the military decide that the new constitution is not to its liking, the administrative court, which is very much in the pocket of the regime, would rule the assembly unconstitutional. This would make the constitution it drafted null and void as well.

Just three days before the ruling on the Assembly, another lawsuit is due to take place determining the legality of the Muslim Brotherhood as an organisation.

Therefore, by 4 September Egypt could see the parliamentary-elected Constituent Assembly dissolved, the draft constitution rejected and the Muslim Brotherhood dismantled: a massive blow to Morsi and Egypt.

Without the re-establishment of parliament, the only legal authority that Morsi can swear his presidential oath to is the High Constitutional Court, as outlined in the addendum.

By swearing to uphold the constitution as is, in front of the court, Morsi automatically legitimises the amendments as well as the dissolution of parliament. 

By postponing the verdict until after the president has sworn the oath and assumed office, the Administrative Court has ensured Morsi must swear to the amendments, or risk direct confrontation with the SCAF – something the Brotherhood is loathe to do.

“We do not want to break the back of the SCAF – in fact, we would like to revive the slogan “the army and the people are one hand’,” says, Dr. Mahmoud Khalil a Brotherhood member who jointly authored Morsi’s presidential “renaissance” programme.

“However, we will not stand for judicial corruption. If the ruling doesn’t go our way then we will get five million people in the streets as well as the upper and lower houses of parliament,” Khalil added, “Morsi will swear an oath in Tahrir to them. This will be massive escalation on the Brotherhood’s part against the SCAF – something we hope to avoid.”

He predicts this will not happen, and instead the Administrative Court will rule in favour of the parliament. The Brotherhood is “a firm believer in the institutions,” Khalil added.

These sentiments will not sit well with the leftist revolutionaries the Brotherhood are trying to court, who came to Tahrir on 25 January 2011 to re-imagine a new Egypt.

Post-election celebrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Photograph: Getty Images
David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide