Hussein Ibish

Morsi giveth and taketh away

Protesters in Cairo

“Morsi giveth, and Morsi taketh away; blessed be the name of the Morsi.”

With extravagant exercises in bait and switch over the past few weeks, Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi has demonstrated a crude but effective technique of political manipulation.

There is no subtlety at work here at all. In the great poker game of post-dictatorship Egyptian politics, it's all in for an Islamist takeover. The Muslim Brotherhood clearly thinks it's now or never, and they're probably right.

And now we know what Morsi's bizarre Constitutional Declaration of November 22—Articles II and VI giving him monarchical powers—was all about. It was designed to create a crisis for which Morsi and his allies had a ready-made solution: a new draft constitution, to be suddenly rammed through with almost no non-Islamist consent and voted on immediately by the Egyptian people.

With everyone, especially the disempowered judiciary, in an inevitable tizzy about this outrageous declaration of presidential authority, the Constitutional Assembly has drafted a proposed constitution that could hardly be worse from any perspective.

It preserves almost all of the existing presidential authorities that have defined Egypt's dictatorships in the past. In addition, it adds significant layers for repressive "Islamic" legislation, and outlines an ill-defined political role for Al-Azhar clerics.

This identifies "sharia" as both the main source of law and specifically Sunni. It has already unleashed a battle for control of the prestigious religious institution, as Al-Azhar appears poised for a major political role.

Until another election for the lower house can be conducted, the new constitution conveniently invests the previously toothless upper house, for which virtually no Egyptians bothered to vote, with total legislative authority. The drafters of the constitution were well aware fellow Islamists hold an 83 percent majority in this body.

And, of course, all of the existing powers, prerogatives and independent authority belonging to the military are preserved in the constitution. This is, obviously, very well calculated from the point of view of the Islamists: They don't want to get into a fight with the men with the guns.

And, besides, the army doesn't seem to have much interest in governing Egypt directly, while the Islamists don't have any well-defined ideas about most of the military's sphere of influence. So they're splitting the difference, at the expense of the ordinary Egyptian people, and the health and well-being of the state.

The November 22 Constitutional Declaration was designed to infuriate the judiciary by robbing it of all of its oversight powers. But once the draft constitution was prepared for the almost immediate referendum, scheduled to begin on December 15, the declaration had served its purpose.

Having taken away, it was time for Morsi Almighty to give again.

On December 9, the president rescinded the declaration, although leaving everything he had decided under it intact, in particular the replacement of the prosecutor-general.

While maintaining that none of the decisions he took in the interim can be challenged by any court, the new declaration does restore some judicial authority. This overture is obviously designed to scupper any efforts by judges to refuse to oversee the referendum.

And there are enough pro-Brotherhood or neutral judges that an extended period of voting throughout the country should be able to overcome any boycott.

Most of the political opposition says it intends to boycott voting on the referendum as well. None of this boycotting is likely to do any good.

The Islamists are well-organized and are already campaigning for a yes vote. The military is issuing vague warnings about public unrest after Brotherhood-supporting thugs attacked and killed numerous protesters who took to the streets in outrage. But the military seems, for now at least, content with both the status quo and the details of the draft constitution.

In another extraordinary bait and switch, on Monday the government announced sweeping tax hikes, only to reverse course on Tuesday morning rescinding almost all of them. Morsi and his Brotherhood allies are using government power in what looks like a wild and haphazard way, but there is a certain abusive logic in their relentless and seemingly arbitrary giving and taking away.

At this point the stability-starved Egyptian people are undoubtedly desperate enough to approve even a constitution this repugnant. The vote may be disrupted by protests and extended by judicial boycott, but it will almost certainly pass.

And Egyptians will then have adopted the least revolutionary, most retrograde, constitution imaginable: one that combines the worst elements of the Mubarak era with a new larding of Islamist social conservatism.

In the unlikely event this constitution is somehow voted down, Morsi has left himself a neat little option: He can order the selection of another constitution-drafting body three months later.

And then Egypt will go through the whole elaborate giving and taking process again, until Morsi finally gets his way.

Protesters gathered in Cairo for rival rallies over a deeply disputed constitutional referendum proposed by President Morsi. AFP photo

At this point the stability-starved Egyptian people are undoubtedly desperate enough to approve even a constitution this repugnant.