Washington Warily Eyes Egypt’s Constitutional Crisis

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An Egyptian man looks on as thousands protesters gather in Cairo's landmark Tahrir square, Nov. 30, 2012.

When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in Cairo last week, the main topic was then on-going Gaza crisis. However, she also took the opportunity to mention to Morsi that “it would be very much in Egypt’s interest and in international interest that [Egypt has] an inclusive constitution.” Morsi was “quite focused” on responding to her concerns and explained to her the internal dynamics and actors in the process. But he still did not warn her of that he was going to issue a decree limiting the Egyptian’s judiciary’s ability to countermand his  decisions–which he announced the day after, surprising both Clinton and the State Department.

Morsi’s decree also infuriated thousands of Egyptians, who saw it as power grab by the president and a virtual assumption of dictatorial powers. As demonstrations took over Tahrir Square, Morsi insisted that his sweeping powers were only temporary– that he would stop wielding them the moment a new constitution was in place, arguing that legal challenges to the charter would only hold up Egypt’s need to move forward with political and economic reform. As if to underline the need for alacrity, the committee drafting the constitution announced on Friday that they were done. That however has done little to mollify the protests.

Indeed, the demonstrations have only intensified since the committee voted to approve its draft.  The problem is not just the document but the drafters. Most of the 100 or so members of the committee are Islamists; only about a quarter were not. Furthermore, as of last week, 20 non-Islamists had resigned in protest, leaving the religiously-oriented participants even more firmly in charge. All of the Christian delegates withdrew from the process in protest over articles 2 and 220 which impose Shari’a law in Egypt and also over a dozen other articles that essentially limit religious freedom. The press unions also withdrew their delegates, upset over articles limiting the freedoms of speech and the press. And women’s groups, though relieved that some of the worst sections were removed, are still very concerned about some of the Shari’a articles. One, in particular, enjoins regular Egyptians to “preserve Egyptian  culture and tradition,” which could lead to people on the street accusing uncovered women of immorality, a precedent set by similar legislation in Iran and the Gulf.

Many of the provisions have troubled U.S. officials for months. The Obama Administration early on in Morsi’s tenure “registered the importance of respecting religious freedom and women’s rights,” says a White House official. “It’s part of our ongoing dialogue with them. Those communities have concerns but we’ll see how things develop in the coming months and years… They understand our concerns.” There has increasingly been a push in Congress to tie Egypt’s aid to progress in minority and human rights. “I do believe that when you look at U.S. tax payer dollars that have been used for Egypt we need to do everything that we possibly can to continue the development of a democracy that underscores women rights and religious freedom,” says House Rules Committee Chair David Dreier, a California Republican with long ties to Egypt. “Democracy is about more than elections.”

“Already in the appropriations law from last year, Congress inserted language on minority rights, freedom of press and religion and the administration is going to have to determine if Egypt is making progress along those lines in order to release the funds,” says Tamara Wittes, head of the Brooking’s Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. “The bottom line is that it complicates significantly the ability of the U.S. government to make major assistance available in a timely way.”

U.S. economic aid to Egypt is relatively small – only about $200 million a year. But U.S. military aid to Egypt is enormous: $1.3 billion a year. And the U.S. has huge influence over the Washington-based International Monetary Fund, which announced $4.8 billion in loans to Cairo just before the latest protests greeted Morsi’ decree. The IMF has since said it is reviewing the situation.

The constitution still needs to be ratified by a popular vote, which will be the real test of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist parties’ power to sway national votes. Morsi himself was only elected after a run off with 51% of the vote. Given the furor, the constitution could be voted down, which would restart the process all over again. “The encouraging thing to me was the people said, ‘No, you will not,’” says Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican. “I think the democratic process is showing some signs of working because the people went to the streets. My hope is that he will listen to the protestors and he understands that he is king, not president.”

With reporting by Alex Rogers/Washington.