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A pharaoh in the making?

First it was hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters who crammed into Cairo's Tahrir Square to demonstrate against the country's new constitution.

Supporters of President Mursi at a demonstration in Cairo yesterday    Photograph: EPA
Supporters of President Mursi at a demonstration in Cairo yesterday Photograph: EPA

Yesterday it was the turn of backers of President Mohammed Mursi to take to the streets to support his new powers and the dawn of a new political era.

Last night Mursi called for a referendum on the constitution – which was supposed to be the glue which would pull together the country's warring political factions – to be set for December 15. Instead of bringing solidarity, the new legislation has simply deepened the divisions which are tearing the country apart. No sooner had the new constitution been hurriedly introduced after an all-night session of the constituent assembly than the opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize-winner, Mohamed ElBaradei, announced that the new document would be consigned to the "garbage can of history".

Amid mounting confusion the Supreme Court is expected to rule today on whether or not the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly should be dissolved. As a British diplomat put it last night: "All new constitutions tend to be messy affairs, but this one is proving to be especially untidy because it's in danger of setting up a clash between the politicians and the judges – hardly a recipe for good governance."

More than anything else the drafting of the new constitution shows signs of haste and of granting additional and perhaps unnecessary powers to Mursi, who has been accused by opponents of acting as if he were a latter-day pharaoh interested only in bolstering his own position and strengthening the claims of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood. It was noticeable during the drafting process in parliament that of the 85 members in attendance, there was not a single Christian, and only four women.

The move to steamroller through the new legislation has been condemned by Human Rights Watch, whose deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, Joe Stork, complained it was "not the right way to guarantee fundamental rights or to promote respect for the rule of law - rushing through a draft while serious concerns about key rights and protections remain unaddressed will create huge problems down the road that won't be easy to fix."

The New Egypt: Constitution in Crisis

No sooner had the new constitution been approved by the assembly than it was clear that Egypt was about to be plunged into a political crisis. The one-sided nature of the decision-making process was apparent in the make-up of the assembly, which is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood with neither Christians nor liberals playing any role. Critics have pointed out that the new format will give Muslim clerics too much influence in creating legislation and that this will have an impact on freedom of speech, women's rights and other liberties.

They also believe too much power has been granted to Mursi, who has given himself absolute powers for the foreseeable future and has let it be known that he will continue his attempts to curb the judiciary, the one branch of state that he is currently unable to influence. In an attempt to reinforce his own authority the president has attempted to forestall today's announcement by claiming that the judiciary has no authority to dissolve the assembly and that he is only acting in this authoritarian manner to provide "delicate surgery" which will allow Egypt to get through the present transitional period and put a stop to the present instability.

"The most important thing of this period is that we finish the constitution, so that we have a parliament under the constitution, elected properly, an independent judiciary, and a president who executes the law," Mursi said in a televised interview at the end of last week.

However, none of this is of any comfort for the opposition parties, who claim that they have been side-lined from the political process. Worse, they are aggrieved by many of the constitutional changes which they feel have given the country an Islamic slant. For example, the present draft keeps in place an article defining "principles of Sharia", or Islamic law, as the main source of legislation and while it embraces freedom from discrimination it does not specify whether women or religious minorities will be protected.

Other mixed messages include a provision for presidential rule to be limited to two four-year terms, but this welcome measure is balanced by maintaining the status quo whereby the defence minister will be chosen from the armed forces and will be able to determine defence policy without parliamentary jurisdiction.

The nature of power: Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood

Throughout the recent instability much has been made of the fact that the whole nature of rule in Egypt has been changed since the overthrow of former president Hosni Mubarak. From being an openly secular society, Egypt is now under Islamic influence through the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Mursi is a member.

Inevitably, perhaps, comparisons have been made with Iran, which followed the overthrow of the Shah of Persia in 1979 with the introduction of one of the most rigid and fanatical Islamic regimes in the world. Such contrasts are natural, as Mubarak was an authoritarian ruler, but the situation in Egypt is balanced by a relatively strong opposition and by the authority of the judiciary.

Even so, Mursi has not helped perceptions that he is a closet dictator by announcing that all of his presidential decrees will be immune from legal challenge – not because he is necessarily right but because his decision-making has been guided by a higher power.

This insistence on divine providence has only helped to reinforce fears that Egypt is on its way to becoming an Islamic autocracy in thrall to the Muslim Brotherhood and the clerics who give it support and authority. Even the language of Mursi's main supporters gives a clue to the direction the country might be taking. As opposition leaders continued to voice their disapproval of the turn of events at the end of last week, Mursi's representative Essem el Erian told the assembly that it was on the right track: "This constitution represents the diversity of the Egyptian people. All Egyptians, male and female, will find themselves in this constitution. We will implement the work of this constitution to hold in high esteem God's law, which was only ink on paper before, and to protect freedoms that were not previously respected."

While el Erian's words have the ring of reason it is impossible to ignore the fact that Mursi's vision of the new order is bolstered by a strong conviction that the new constitution must be underpinned by God's authority.

Whither the Arab

Spring: Egypt and

the Middle East

DURING the present crisis, neighbouring Israel has been in turmoil as a result of the long-running confrontation with the Hamas administration in Gaza.

Until recently this was a subject which would had produced the involvement of Mubarak, but with him out of the frame Washington was agog to see if Mursi would be able to exert similar diplomatic influence.

They did not have long to wait. No sooner had a bomb exploded in a bus in Tel Aviv, seemingly signalling a fresh wave of violence, than US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared in public with Egypt's foreign minister, Mohamed Kamel Amr, announcing an immediate ceasefire which seems to be holding. The surprise move followed a round of shuttle diplomacy which took her from Jerusalem to Ramallah and on to Cairo and which was brokered largely by the Egyptian president.

When it was all over Clinton went out of her way to congratulate Mursi, praising him for the "responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone of regional stability and peace". At the same time it became clear that just as President Barack Obama had been able to exert influence on the Israeli leadership, so too had Mursi been able to lean on the Palestinians.

Some of the gilt was taken off the intervention when Mursi talked about the "farce of the Israeli aggression" and cynics in the State Department could not help noting that Egypt was desperate to receive a billion dollars in debt relief from the US.

So the jury remains out on whether or not Mursi will be able to fulfil a function similar to his predecessor in being Washington's point man in any future confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians.

His intervention in the recent crisis seems to suggest that Egypt can still act as a regional go-between but it remains to be seen if the US State Department will continue to cosy up to a regime dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, which is hardly a natural friend of the West.

After all, only a few days earlier Mursi had stood in Cairo's al Azhar mosque to offer his unwavering support for Hamas and their fighters.

"We in Egypt stand with Gaza," he said. "We are with them in one trench, that he who hits them, hits us; that this blood which flows from their children, it is like the blood flowing from the bodies of our children and our sons, may this never happen."

This might be the kind of language which informed the precepts of the Arab Spring which led to Mursi and his Islamic allies taking power in Egypt but as diplomatic sources point out, aimed at Israel, it is hardly the language of moderation.

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