Egypt’s contentious Islamist constitution becomes law


Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi signed into law a new constitution shaped by his Islamist allies, a bitterly contested document which he insists will help end political turmoil and allow him to focus on fixing the economy.

Anxiety about a deepening political and economic crisis has gripped Egypt in past weeks, with many people rushing to buy dollars and withdraw their savings from banks. The Egyptian pound tumbled on Wednesday to its weakest level against the U.S. currency in almost eight years.

The new constitution, which the liberal opposition says betrays Egypt's 2011 revolution by dangerously mixing religion and politics, has polarized the Arab world's most populous nation and prompted occasionally violent protest on the streets.

The presidency said on Wednesday that Morsi had formally approved the constitution the previous evening, shortly after results showed that Egyptians had backed it in a referendum.

The text won about 64 percent of the vote, paving the way for a new parliamentary election in about two months.

The charter states that the principles of sharia, Islamic law, are the main source of legislation and that Islamic authorities will be consulted on sharia – a source of concern to the Christian minority and others.

The referendum result marked yet another electoral victory for the Islamists since veteran autocrat Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011, following parliamentary elections last year and the presidential vote that brought Morsi to power this year.

Morsi's government, which has accused opponents of damaging the economy by prolonging political upheaval, now faces the tough task of building a broad consensus as it prepares to impose austerity measures.

CRISIS ATMOSPHERE

The atmosphere of crisis deepened this week after the Standard & Poor's agency downgraded Egypt's long-term credit rating and warned of a possible further cut. The government has imposed currency restrictions to reduce capital flight.

The pound traded as low as 6.1775 against the dollar on Wednesday, close to its all-time low of 6.26 hit on October 14, 2004, on concerns that the government might devalue or tighten restrictions on currency movements.

“All customers are rushing to buy dollars after the downgrading,” said a dealer at a Cairo-based bank. “We'll have to wait to see how the market will operate with the U.S. dollar, because as you know there is a rush at the moment.”

Keen to be seen as decisive, the government is now in talks with business figures, trade unions and other groups to highlight the need for tax increases to resolve the crisis.

Morsi has committed to such austerity measures to receive a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

However, Al-Mal newspaper quoted Planning Minister Ashraf al-Araby as saying the government would not implement the tax increases until it had completed the dialogue with different parts of society.

In Cairo's bustling centre, people openly expressed their frustration with economic instability as they went about their daily business.

“The country's going to the pits. Everything is a mess,” Hamdy Hussein, a 61-year-old building janitor, said angrily. “It's worse than ever. Mubarak was better than now. People were living and there was security.”

Ashraf Mohamed Kamal, 30, added: “The economic situation will be a mess in the next few years. It already is. People will get hungrier. People are now begging more.”

TURMOIL CONTINUES

Morsi, catapulted into power by his Islamist allies this year, believes adopting the constitution quickly and holding the vote for a permanent new parliament will help to end the long period of turmoil and uncertainty that has wrecked the economy.

Morsi's government argues the constitution offers enough protection to all groups, and that many Egyptians are fed up with street protests that have prevented a return to normality and distracted the government from tackling the economy.

The charter gives Egypt's upper house of parliament, which is dominated by Islamists, full legislative powers until the vote for a new lower house is held.

While stressing the importance of political stability to heal the economy, Morsi's government has tried to play down the economic problems and appealed for unity despite the hardship.

“The government calls on the people not to worry about the country's economy,” Parliamentary Affairs Minister Mohamed Mahsoub told the upper house in a speech. “We are not facing an economic problem but a political one and it is affecting the economic situation. We therefore urge all groups, opponents and brothers, to achieve wide reconciliation and consensus.”

Morsi is due to address the upper house on Saturday in a speech likely to be dominated by economic policy.

Sharpening people's concerns, the authorities imposed currency controls on Tuesday to prevent capital flight. Leaving or entering Egypt with more than $10,000 in cash is now banned.

Adding to the government's long list of worries, Communications Minister Hany Mahmoud has resigned citing his “inability to adapt to the government's working culture”.

The opposition has condemned the new basic law as too Islamist, saying it could allow clerics to intervene in the lawmaking process and leave minority groups without proper legal protection. It said this month's vote was marred by major violations.

Nevertheless, major opposition groups have not called for new protests, suggesting that weeks of civil unrest over the constitution may be subsiding now that it has passed.

The United States, which provides $1.3 billion a year in military aid plus other support to Egypt and sees it as a pillar of security in the Middle East, called on Egyptian politicians to bridge divisions and on all sides to reject violence.

Additional reporting by Patrick Werr; Writing by Maria Golovnina; editing by David Stamp

Israel booming but helicopters may be an omen of trouble ahead


On a recent morning, as Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak ratcheted up warnings that Israel was preparing to launch a major operation in the Gaza Strip, I stand on an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) lookout a few hundred yards from Gaza, as two dark Apache helicopters swoop down and fire on a nearby hill.

The helicopters let loose an intense barrage, dispatch their flares, bank sharply and return to attack again. Lt. Col. David Benjamin, the former IDF legal adviser in Gaza, suggests we leave the lookout and move behind a nearby rock. Meanwhile, IDF jeeps race across the path alongside the border fence in front of us.

Benjamin explains that these actions occur on a daily basis up and down the border. Just as the IDF works constantly to keep a small patch within Gaza clear of terrorists, so, too, Hamas makes efforts every day to get through, over or under the fence — and to engage the IDF. Hamas’ success rate has been minimal, he says, and their casualties significant, “but they’re still coming, still trying, every day.”

The key issue, Benjamin emphasizes, is Gaza’s border with Egypt.

“We patrol our land border, and our Navy patrols the sea border,” he says, “but the Hamas weapons are smuggled in under the border with Egypt.”

Benjamin notes that he drafted some of the legal paperwork that effected the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza two summers ago. “I told my commander when I handed him the documents that we were making history. He said, ‘Don’t be so sure — we might be back.'”

Nearby in Sderot, kids play outside during a teachers strike, even though Qassam rockets strike in or near the city every day. As Sderot suffers from the barrage and the flight of thousands of residents, Vice Mayor Aron Malka tells me that crime is at an all-time low and going down.

The community coming together in time of stress, I ask?

“No,” he says, “the Bedouins have disappeared” because of the Qassams.

Living in Sderot is “like being in a prison of life,” Malka says.

He smiles just a bit when told that artwork from the traumatized children of Sderot is touring venues in Los Angeles.

“That gives us hope,” he says. “The Jews will learn of Sderot, and it will give us the strength to stay.” Malka was born in Sderot 42 years ago, and he and his family are clearly staying, despite not having a shelter in their house.

Up north, white U.N. helicopters patrol what is supposed to be the Hezbollah-free area north of the Israeli border to the Litani River. Retired Col. Kobi Marom, former commander of IDF forces in the north, points to a helicopter hovering over a Lebanese road that his convoy used to transit regularly.

“Once a man stopped at my truck,” he says. “I was going to check him out, but before I could open the door, he exploded on my truck.” Marmon and his reinforced command vehicle survived; an officer in the vehicle behind him died.

Metulla, which sits as close to Lebanon as West Hollywood sits to Beverly Hills, reflects none of the scars of last year’s battle. The main streets and malls of Kiryat Shmona, likewise, have been repaired, and everyday life has returned. When I visited this area during the war last summer, I heard the pounding of IDF ordnance flying into Lebanon; this year I hear the sounds of commerce and traffic.

Yet Marom points north and shakes his head.

“They will try attacking IDF patrols again, soon,” he says of Hezbollah. “Nothing is more important to them than showing that they can fight Israel.”

On the outskirts of Kiryat Shmona, we stop at a memorial to 73 soldiers killed in the crash of two troop transport helicopters 10 years ago.

“I was the commanding officer, and I was here within five minutes,” Marom says, “but there was no one to save.”

My driver, Roni, looks at the memorial and does a double-take.

“My son was born the night of the crash,” he explains. “We celebrated his birth, and then one hour later news of the helicopter crash came on the TV. I saw the name ‘Shai’ twice — there were two soldiers named ‘Shai.’ It just clicked — we named our son Noam Shai.”

After a while, Roni looks at me.

“There’s so much meaning here,” he reflects. “Or maybe you just create meaning to keep yourself here.”

Israel is booming. Ben-Gurion Airport is on track for a record year. Entrepreneurs and foreign investment are flooding the zone. Hotel rooms are a precious commodity. On my recent visit I saw more construction cranes (more investment) and fewer shomerim at restaurants (less fear of suicide bombers) than ever before. And yet I flew home with the feeling that, one day soon, helicopters will again create meaning in Israel.



Jack Weiss is a member of the Los Angeles City Council.

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