Despite Morsi changes, Egypt’s opposition protesting draft constitution

Egypt's opposition said it would continue to protest an upcoming referendum on a draft constitution even after President Mohamed Morsi canceled decrees that gave him virtually unlimited power.

Late Saturday night, Morsi withdrew the decrees that gave him immunity from judicial oversight. But he continues to insist on going forward with the scheduled Dec. 15 referendum.

The opposition, led by the National Salvation Front, is objecting to the draft constitution in part because it would enshrine Islamic law.

Demonstrators have been protesting outside the presidential palace, and the Cairo headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Morsi belongs, were set on fire.

A million man march demonstration opposing the draft constitution has been called for Tuesday.

Morsi’s decree leaves U.S. in hot seat

[Cairo] As a staunch advocate of democracy, the American administration’s position was brought into question when Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi awarded himself sweeping powers in a game-changing constitutional declaration announced last week.

The declaration, which rendered the president’s decrees immune to oversight by the courts and is deemed to be an infringement on judicial independence, comes on the heels of a successful ceasefire in the Gaza Strip brokered by Morsi himself.

Experts argue that given Morsi’s newfound role as the Middle East mediator who serves US interests, the Obama administration is unlikely to speak out against the decree despite its blatant anti-democratic nature.

Morsi reportedly worked closely with US President Barack Obama throughout the weeklong assault on Hamas in Gaza by Israeli forces, finally mediating a ceasefire. The Associated Press reported that both presidents spoke three times in 24 hours during the final stages of negotiations. Afterward, Egypt’s president was widely praised for his efforts.

Nathan Brown, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, explains that the US position is clear; “It supports Egyptian democracy but not any political outcome or leader, and it has regional security interests and positions that inhibit it from speaking forcefully on the democracy issue.”

“That has not changed,” he told The Media Line.

The US was heavily criticized for supporting Hosni Mubarak and turning a blind eye to Egyptian human rights violations while continuing to provide his government billions of dollars in aid annually. 

So far, the American administration has been reluctant to take a clear stance on Morsi’s recent decree, which drove the country into turmoil, prompting ongoing protests as more than 200,000 demonstrators poured into Tahrir Square.

At a press conference Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Washington is still trying to gather more information about the situation which she explained remains unclear. Nuland said the Obama administration had called for settling the dispute in a democratic manner that preserves the balance of power.

“When confronted with concerns about the decree that he issued, President Morsi entered into discussions with the judiciary, with other stakeholders in Egypt,” Nuland said. “That's a far cry from an autocrat just saying, ‘My way or the highway.’”

She emphasized that the US-Egypt relationship depends on its leader’s determination to achieve all the revolution’s goals and work towards a democratic country, after which she immediately praised Morsi’s role in brokering the ceasefire in Gaza.

The Obama administration insists the Egyptian fray over Morsi’s assumption of powers is a domestic matter. Jay Carney, White House press secretary, said that “We believe firmly that this needs to be resolved internally as part of a transition to democracy.”

Emad Gad, political analyst at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and a senior member of the Egyptian Democratic Social Party, agrees.

While he acknowledges that the US administration “supports Morsi because he cooperates with them,” Gad said that Egypt cannot bank on any kind of foreign pressure or interference, and that the standoff with the president can only be resolved internally.

“The US only cares about its own, as well as Israel’s interests,” Gad told The Media Line, “We’re not even in the equation.”

“I wouldn’t put too much weight on the US stance altogether,” Gad said. “It all depends on internal maneuvers.”

Brown also echoed the same sentiments.

“The Egyptian political struggle is primarily domestic. Most political actors are quick to accuse their adversaries of being unpatriotic and even foreign agents,” he said, explaining that for this reason he suspects that “the main dialogue [with the US] – if it is taking place at all – is going on in private.”

This week, the European Union threatened to decrease aid to Egypt should Morsi insist on implementing his decree, a senior member of the EU Parliament told German newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau.

Earlier this month, the EU approved a 5 billion euros [about $6.5 billion] “support package” to Egypt, to be disbursed through European financial institutions over a two-year period.

“If Morsi chooses the road of dictatorship then the funds pumped into the Egyptian market will be less,” Elmar Brok, head of the EU Parliament's foreign affairs committee, said.

Similarly, the controversial decree raised questions about last week’s preliminary agreement under which the International Monetary Fund will provide Egypt with a $4.8 billion loan. 

However, during her news conference Nuland said that the IMF makes its own decisions and that when it reaches an initial agreement with a country, in this case Egypt, the conditions are economic, not political.

With regard to US aid to Egypt, which amounts to more than $1.9 billion each year, mostly allocated to the military, Nuland said, “As we made clear, we support clearing this through the Congress, but the Congress is also watching democratic developments in Egypt.”

However, Gad maintains that even if the Washington would withhold the aid, it is unlikely to affect the outcome. “Whatever pressure the US puts on Morsi to rescind his decree, we don’t care, the situation ultimately depends on domestic pressure,” he said.

On his part, Morsi seems adamant about implementing his decree, backed by the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. As tens of thousands of Egyptians poured into Tahrir Square on Tuesday denouncing the constitutional declaration, the Islamist group not only seemed unfazed, but was defiant, with the presidential spokesperson Yasser Ali stating that “there is no turning back, the decree is staying and those not willing to reach a point of stability will be held accountable to God and history.” 

The Muslim Brotherhood has called for mass protests on Saturday in support of Morsi’s decree in Tahrir Square where its detractors are staging a sit-in, raising fears of violent confrontations.