Egypt’s coming showdown: Boycott of December 15 referendum, opposition demonstrations, and the reactions of the armed forces

President Mohamed Morsi has, by his relentless pursuit of an Islamic constitution, an Islamic state, and ultimately an Islamic dictatorship guided by conservative interpretations of the sharia, brought Egypt to the precipice of civil war.

The opposition, faced with a referendum on December 15 on a draft constitution whose birth was made possible by a coup d’etat and the intimidation of the constitutional court by means worthy of a totalitarian state–involving physical threats against the judges and death threats delivered to their phones by Muslim Brotherhood supporters–can only lose if it participates in what is a fundamentally illegitimate referendum. Moreover,  the referendum has not been duly organized while its oversight and vote counting, under the control of Morsi, cannot be trusted to be fair.

Justice Tahani El-Guébali, one of a handful of female judges in the Egyptian judiciary–which has traditionally barred women from its ranks–describes in chilling detail the obstruction and intimidation which prevented the Constitutional Court from reaching a decision on the constitutionality of the constituent assembly elections:

(The French text below may be translated using Google Translate, found here).

Dimanche, alors que les dix-neuf membres de la Haute Cour devaient se réunir pour examiner la légitimité de l’Assemblée constituante, accusée de ne pas représenter le pays, nous avons été bloqués par un barrage de barbus pro-Morsi qui nous ont empêchés de pénétrer dans le bâtiment. Depuis, ils sont des centaines à camper sur place. Chaque fois que je m’y rends, je dois rebrousser chemin sous un déluge d’insultes. J’ai même reçu des menaces de mort sur mon portable. Depuis son coup d’État constitutionnel du 22 novembre, qui interdit tout recours en justice contre ses décisions et contre la Constituante, le nouveau président a accaparé les pleins pouvoirs. Il ­règne en maître au-dessus des lois. Il impose sa dictature.

(English translation)

Sunday, while the nineteen members of the High Court were to meet to discuss the legitimacy of the Constituent Assembly, which is accused of failing to represent the country, we were blocked by a barrage of bearded pro-Morsi supporters which prevented us from entering the building. Since then, hundreds of people are camping on site. Whenever I go there, I must turn back under a deluge of insults. I even received death threats on my mobile phone. Since its constitutional coup of November 22, which prohibits any legal proceedings against his decisions and against the Constituent Assembly, the new president has taken over full powers. He-reigns above the law. He imposes his dictatorship.

Further, Justice Tahani El-Guébali explained the steps Morsi is taking to establish a dictatorship in Egypt, reconstituting the Constitutional Court by eliminating eight positions, including her own:

Les partisans de Morsi assurent que son décret est «temporaire » et qu’il vise à accélérer les réformes…

C’est faux. Les Frères musulmans sont en train de kidnapper la révolution. Ils cherchent à contrôler toutes les institutions, notamment la Haute Cour constitutionnelle. La nouvelle Constitution, qu’ils veulent soumettre à référendum le 15 décembre, réduit ses compétences et propose d’évincer huit de ses membres, dont moi-même. Pendant ce temps, l’institution sunnite al-Azhar se voit, elle, octroyer la tâche d’interpréter la charia…

(English translation)

Morsi’s supporters affirm that the decree is “temporary” and that it aims to accelerate reforms …

This is false. The Muslim Brotherhood is trying to kidnap the revolution. They seek to control all institutions, especially the Supreme Constitutional Court. The new Constitution, which they want to submit to a referendum on December 15, limits its powers and jurisdiction, and seeks to to remove eight of its members, including myself. Meanwhile, the Sunni institution al-Azhar is itself granted the authority of interpreting the sharia (Muslim law)…

–See Delphine Minou, “Égypte: « Morsi a accaparé les pleins pouvoirs » (Interview with Tahani El-Guébali, Vice-presidente de la Haut Cour Constitutionelle d’Egypte), Le Figaro, 5 decembre 2012 (Mis à jour le 06/12/2012 à 11:19).

The opposition’s logical response will be to continue their massive street demonstrations in defense of the democratic revolution and a future Egyptian state governed by the rule of law.

Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood may then respond by calling their supporters to the streets to participate in further clashes with the opposition, like those that claimed seven lives on December 6, or to declare martial law–and even potentially to begin to arrest leading opposition figures.

At that point, the hour of decision will have arrived. Will the military use force against the opposition demonstrators? Will the armed forces and police enforce a declaration of martial law, or repress the rage of millions of opposition demonstrators once their leaders are being arrested?

That is the endgame. Either the military will join the Muslim Brotherhood in repressing the opposition demonstrators in the streets, reprising its role under Hosni Mubarak, or something else will happen.

If the military assists the Brotherhood and its Salafist allies in establishing an Islamic dictatorship in Egypt, the U.S. congress will in all likelihood end the $1.5 billion in assistance the U.S. gives the Egyptian military each year, while relations between the military and the United States are sharply curtailed.

The future of Egypt may once again be in the hands of the armed forces and the police. How they respond may not necessarily depend on the orders they receive from the new leadership appointed by Morsi, but rather on the soldiers and policemen whose brothers and sisters are also in the street.

Or it may be lost by continuing divisions and a lack of unity on the part of Morsi’s opponents.

The military has now convoked a dialogue on Wednesday between Morsi and his opponents. It is to be held, significantly, at a military venue.

It is a moment of great import. The future of the Arab Spring and the aspirations for democracy of millions of Egyptians, and others in the region, hang in the balance.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.