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
Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.