The crisis in Egypt which erupted after President Mohamed Mursi granted himself extraordinary powers has entered a new phase with the president yesterday announcing a referendum on a controversial draft constitution to be held on December 15. The draft constitution is at the heart of widening rifts between Islamists and the opposition camp, comprising of leftists, liberals and Christians. The latter had walked out of the constituent assembly leaving a largely Islamist panel in charge of drafting the charter which has been criticised for failing to represent all Egyptians.
Mursi received a copy of the final document from the head of the panel drafting the charter and called the referendum to seek public opinion on its contents. But even before putting to vote, the draft has divided Egyptians. Leading dissident and former UN nuclear watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei said that Morsi has put to referendum a draft that “undermines basic freedoms and violates universal values.” He said the struggle would continue, and other parties in the opposition camp too are expected to follow ElBaradei, which indicates a hardening of positions and more political chaos in Egypt.
The transition to democracy in Egypt after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak has been bumpy and filled with major obstacles. The latest crisis was triggered by Mursi’s decree that his decisions were above judicial scrutiny, which his opponents saw as a brazen attempt to consolidate and prolong his grip on power and become another Mubarak. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets since then in protest, while Mursi refused to budge from his position though he sent conciliatory messages to his opponents. The decision to hold the referendum on constitution is a tactical move by the president and his ruling party to find a quick solution to the crisis.
With just two weeks left for the referendum, Egypt will again witness the fury of another election, with both sides going to the people with their views. As long as both sides fail to reach a consensus on the serious issues facing the nation, the current stalemate and chaos will persist, and prosperity and economic progress will elude the nation.
As president, Mursi must listen to the opposition and win the confidence of the people. What Egypt needs is a quick transition to democracy, a democracy in which all citizens, irrespective of their religion and creed, will be treated equally. The president hopes approval of the constitution through referendum will end the current crisis, but that is unlikely to happen as the opposition has already said the draft is divisive and undermines freedom.
A constitution which is drafted by a single group cannot be comprehensive and protect freedoms. The president needs to take more courageous and wide-ranging decisions to take all Egyptians with him.