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
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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.