On Saturday, Egypt is scheduled to vote on its new Constitution, in a referendum pushed by President Mohamed Morsi and his influential Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. And for the next week, the country’s increasingly combative opposition is going to do everything in its power to challenge that vote.
The showdown between the two sides has been escalating for weeks, with no sign of quieting, as the country hurtles toward referendum day. On Tuesday, both opposition activists and Brotherhood loyalists are planning to mount competing shows of force on the streets. The former will march on the presidential palace, the scene of a bloody street fight between Morsi opponents and supporters last week. Presidential loyalists, meanwhile, will stage a mass rally of their own at the nearby Rabaa el-Adawya mosque.
The tone at both rallies is expected to be one of defiance, providing another sign of how firmly each side is entrenched. “We think they are afraid of a vote, because they know that when there’s a vote, the Muslim Brotherhood will always win,” says Ahmed Aref, an FJP spokesman.
“The revolutionary tide in the street is that people are calling for Morsi’s head,” says Ahmed Hawary, an official with al-Dostour, the opposition party headed by Nobel laureate Mohamed el-Baradei.
For Morsi’s part, he and the Brotherhood are painting the referendum as a necessary step toward bringing stability to Egypt. Since the 2011 revolution, the country has suffered from regular outbreaks of street violence, mass protests, and political chaos. This summer, after the Brotherhood and hard-line Salafists won more than three quarters of seats in parliamentary elections, the legislature was disbanded by the courts. Egypt has been in legislative limbo ever since.
The new Constitution would allow the country to proceed with new parliamentary elections. In late November, Morsi issued a decree that granted him far-reaching powers, which he used to prevent the courts from disbanding the assembly drafting the new Constitution, whose controversial clauses on issues such as women’s rights and sharia law appeal heavily to the Brotherhood’s base.
Morsi likely didn’t anticipate the public firestorm set off by the decree, which he rescinded over the weekend with the Constitution drafted and the referendum date set. Opponents blasted the president as a “new pharaoh” and called for the vote to be pushed back and Constitution scrapped, massing outside the presidential palace to press their point. In his determination to see the vote go through as planned, Morsi has now ordered the military out of its barracks in order to keep peace on the streets ahead of referendum—arresting civilians if necessary and guarding the polls.
Some analysts say Morsi’s move to call on the military has upped the ante in his standoff with the opposition and that both sides are playing a dangerous game of chicken. Paul Sullivan, a professor at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., says mutual suspicion is at an all-time high and that the country’s economy is tanking as the various factions squabble with each other. Sullivan sees Morsi’s calling on the military as a sign that the president could be worried about escalating violence. “There are just so many things that point towards chaos,” he says. “And one thing militaries don’t like is chaos. The best thing would be for this to be resolved through dialogue and peaceful discussion. But many people feel we’re beyond that. The differences are too vast.The Muslim Brotherhood, President Morsi, and the protestors in the opposition should all be thinking about how the military may respond to any significant increases in violence and volatility."
Over the past few weeks, signs have been mounting that Egyptians are on edge, a feeling that is only bound to increase over the next five days. The road from the airport to downtown Cairo, which passes by the presidential palace and is normally clogged with cars, is surprisingly free of traffic. Meanwhile, down by Tahrir Square—the city’s main traffic circle, which has been once again taken over by protesters—cars clamorously honk their horns in stifling traffic jams. Egyptians worry darkly about the unrest.
As fears grow of chaos on the streets, Morsi has publicly offered to sit down with the opposition and discuss a compromise, including the possibility of amending the Constitution after it is passed. But opposition leaders say the moves are false olive branches and that the Constitution should be drafted again from scratch. They say it is unrepresentative of the will of many Egyptians and point to a walkout by all secular and liberal members of the assembly tasked with drafting the document, along with all the Coptic Christians, over suspicions that the process was being hijacked by Islamist interests.
As the vote approaches, there are few signs that a compromise is on the way. “This has been a very complicated process,” says Sullivan, of the National Defense University. “And [Tuesday] is going to say a lot more about where this will go.”