They went out in the thousands; Egyptians from every walk of life and almost all political affiliations protested in Tahrir against President Mursi’s latest decree and the draft of the new constitution.
However, they were not the only ones protesting. Islamist groups, mainly the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, protested too, but in support of the president and the new constitution, which, in their eyes, is Islamic and consistent with the “core” values of Egyptian society. They proclaimed their protest to be a “true million-man march,” labeling the Tahrir protestors as un-Islamic, the secular minority, infiltrated by the ex-regime and even funded from abroad.
The Muslim Brotherhood is waging a war of perception, not just for domestic consumption but for a western audience, too. Perception is crucial for two reasons: To defeat non-Islamist opponents, who may lose faith quickly when watching the endless number of pro-Mursi protestors in comparison to their relatively lower number in Tahrir and, secondly, to convince western nations that Islamists are the only reliable, powerful force in Egypt and that they are backed by the “majority” of Egyptians.
Eighty years of a mushrooming underground within Egyptian society has resulted in deep mistrust of mainstream establishments. Islamists view members of these establishments and other non-Islamist forces with deep suspicion and consider them elitist, anti-religious snobs. The strict, rules that govern the Brotherhood’s internal structure were partly introduced to protect the group from outside “corruption.”
This combination plus simmering resentment and years of grievance have finally exploded in the recent crisis in Egypt, and it partly explains the abrupt, odd way that Mursi has chosen to deal with it.
Moreover, Mursi, who likes to address Egyptians as his “brothers and children,” clearly feels at ease only among his brothers and children within his party, but he seems to struggle with dealing with “others’ brothers and children,” whom he has inherited as part of the whole package of ruling Egypt. He, it seems, despises everything the others stand for; their individuality, their boldness, and their persistent scrutiny.
No wonder he chose to explain his decree by addressing his supporters in front of the presidential palace, and he ignored those in Tahrir as if they were his “stepchildren,” an inconvenience that he is hoping he can overcome. Their protests were not part of his curriculum and have pushed him to revert, even more, to his own natural tendency of defiance and autocracy.
Rather than suppressing his opponents by force, Mursi has decided to snooker them. By calling for a referendum on his proposed constitution, he has put his opponents in an extremely difficult situation. He is banking on his supporters to deliver a clear yes vote, which would reinforce his claim that the majority of Egyptians are backing him up. He also has managed to secure legal backup, as Egyptian judges are divided between being anti- and pro-Mursi.
While the Judges Club, the largest representative organization of judges in Egypt, has issued a recommendation to its members not to oversee the referendum, the Supreme Judiciary Council has agreed to delegate judges and members of the prosecution to assume that responsibility.
Tired, drained, and divided, the Egyptian opposition now has two painful choices: Either boycott or participate in the referendum and vote no. Boycotting is not the better option; if the government imposes a fine for skipping the vote, many Egyptians (who are already struggling economically) will ignore the boycott campaign.
This overlooks the fact that boycotting is never a good idea; Islamists are ready to mobilize their supporters just to turn up and a voter turnout of 30 per cent or less is all that is needed for the result to be viewed as legitimate.
On the other hand, participating in the referendum is not without risk. If the majority votes yes, it will be a victory in Mursi’s war of perception and non-Islamists will definitely look like the minority. However, if the majority votes no, then Mursi is almost certain to stick to his decree that protects him and grants him full power, until a new constitution can be drafted. A very clever game of snooker from Mursi.
It is time for cool heads and clear plans for non-Islamists if they are to win this round of the legitimacy war. Protesting against Mursi will always help, but it is not enough. It is time for aggressive campaigning to explain the pitfalls of the new constitution and how it can negatively affect the general public.
Fighting autocracy is not the war of the elite; it is the war of the oppressed who have suffered for decades under the junta’s police state. A smart campaign to expose the flaws of this shambolic constitution may attract a big section of Egyptian society. It is not too late to fight smartly and campaign in every trade union, syndicate, and university in Egypt. It is the only way to strike the back at Mursi and force him to understand that the non-Islamists are not stepchildren, but legitimate sons and daughters whom he must take seriously.
(The writer is a columnist at Daily News Egypt, where this article was published on Dec. 5, 2012)