When Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi made an unprecedented power grab two weeks ago—a move protested by tens of thousands of demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square—Egypt’s liberal-activist movement found itself suddenly resurgent.
Largely sidelined since the 2011 revolution and throughout the subsequent elections that swept Morsi and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood into office, Egypt’s liberals have spent the last year trying—and largely failing—to get people riled up about the Brotherhood’s conservative political agenda. But Morsi touched a collective nerve with his November decree declaring the president to be free from judicial oversight, a move that effectively removed any checks on his power. Crowds thronged Tahrir, chanting “the people want the fall of the regime,” the same cry heard when Egypt’s longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak was ousted almost two years ago.
Many activists gleefully noted that Morsi’s overreach helped unite a liberal opposition that seemed weak and lost in the wake of the Brotherhood’s electoral triumphs. “He’s gonna look bad, and we’re gonna look good,” one activist said of the decree as protests got underway last week.
But just as the opposition regained its momentum and fire, Morsi did something that seemed to have them on the back foot once again—he challenged them to a vote.
Faced with mounting public anger, Morsi has maintained that his decree was merely meant to be a temporary stopgap until the country can vote on its new Constitution and put a legislature in place. (Right now, Egypt is without a Parliament, after the last one was disbanded in June by judges appointed by the old Mubarak regime.) Specifically, Morsi said, he wanted to prevent the courts from dissolving the constitutional assembly tasked with drafting the document, as many observers believed the judiciary might do. In protest, many judges—including those in Egypt’s highest court—have gone on strike.
The writing of the Constitution has been hotly contested: the assembly’s Christian, liberal, and secular members had already walked out over charges that Islamists who dominate the assembly were hijacking the process. But last week, even as protesters camped out in Tahrir, the assembly forced through a final document that took a conservative tack on a number of hot-button issues, including sharia law and women’s rights.
The new Constitution will be up for a nationwide referendum on December 15, presenting the opposition with the question of whether it can mount a serious campaign against ratification with so little time to prepare—and also whether it should. During presidential elections earlier this year, Morsi eked by with just 51 percent of the vote, which included the backing of liberal groups who preferred him over his opponent, a former prime minister under Mubarak. With such a slim mandate, Morsi might seem vulnerable now that popular fury is mounting against him.
But many in the opposition favor boycotting the vote entirely. “The entire constitution-writing process is a farce,” says Nadine Wahab, an activist with the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. “Being counted is a ‘yes’ to the system, whether you vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”
Wahab adds that the Freedom and Justice Party—the official face of the Muslim Brotherhood’s formidable political machine—is adept at overpowering opponents at the ballot box, and most analysts say it would be heavily favored to push ratification on December 15, no matter what kind of effort its opponents can mount.
At the same time, the very idea of the referendum seemed to temporarily deflate and divide the opposition yet again, plunging them into the same sense of uncertainty that has plagued them since the revolution ended. “They win at politics,” Wahab says. “So now [Morsi] has us trying to play politics again. This was a very smart play on his side.”
On Monday, top opposition leaders met to try to decide their stand on the upcoming vote. But even as the country’s media and tourism industries announced that they were weighing a strike on Tuesday as part of a nationwide protest against the draft Constitution, there seemed to be no easy path for the opposition ahead. “There’s no clear idea what to do with this referendum,” says Sherif Mansour, a veteran dissident based in New York. “It’s much easier to think what you are against than what you are for.”
Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Institute’s Doha Center, points out that aside from its get-out-the-vote machine, the Brotherhood has another key advantage in the referendum: most Egyptians are tired of the ongoing uncertainty. “Morsi and the Brotherhood have one argument in particular to their advantage, and that’s the argument for stability,” he says.
He adds that the vote is a Catch-22 for Egypt’s liberal activists. “If you participate, you’re bringing legitimacy to a process you don’t believe in. But if you boycott, you’re allowing the ‘yes’ voters to win almost automatically,” he says. “So it’s a tough choice.”
As the opposition wrestles with how to proceed, it must also grapple with the prospect that the Constitution and its conservative clauses will be much harder to roll back if the document passes with a majority vote. “The tactic of choice among the liberals and secular people has tended to be boycotting,” says Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at the Century Foundation. “That doesn’t really work if you boycott a constitutional referendum and the Constitution becomes the law of the land.”