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Morsi Calls Referendum, Egypt’s Liberals Helplessly Protest

Mohamed Morsi yesterday called for a referendum for December 15 on the controversial draft constitution that has so antagonized Egypt’s liberals. The Financial Times sums up the state of play in Cairo:

The new charter reduces the powers of the president and strengthens parliament. However, it shields the military from civilian oversight and allows the army to prosecute civilians. It also opens the way for a greater role for religion in government and legislation.


As the president made his announcement, a huge Islamist rally in front of Cairo University erupted with joy.

Across the Nile, thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square demonstrated against the decision.

Then earlier today, protesters backing Morsi forced Egypt’s Supreme Court to suspend its activities indefinitely. The court was set to rule against the legitimacy of the constitutional assembly. That will now not happen.

It’s always hard to understand the fast changing politics of a revolution in progress, but in Egypt the Islamists and the military seem to have reached an accommodation: The Islamists will leave the military alone and let the soldiers shape high politics while the military will stand back as the Islamists lead a conservative social revolution in the country.

Left out of this are the liberals, the Christians, secular Egyptians, and some of the business leaders and officials who were powerful under the old regime.

As long as the military and the Islamists stick together, it seems unlikely that the liberals can do more than protest. And in a country like Egypt, rural masses tend not to side with urban liberals in a political showdown. Egypt’s flawed constitution will likely probably win a referendum if both the Brotherhood and the Army stand behind it, and there isn’t much the liberals can do about it.

Egypt’s liberals and Christians are not completely powerless, but they seem to have lost the most in a revolution most of them enthusiastically backed. It’s an old story in the history of revolutions: relatively liberal figures like LaFayette in France and Kerensky in Russia are prominent when the revolution begins, and get sidelined if not worse as things progress.

One of the most interesting if not always reassuring features of the Arab Spring to date: how closely 21st century revolutions in the Middle East are tracking the history of 18th and 19th century revolutions in Europe, with Islamists taking the place of socialists as the leading force on the “left”. Tip for young people hoping to run the world some day: modern European history is intensely relevant and important for people who want to understand the contemporary world, even if contemporary Europe’s influence is shrinking.

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