Tag Archives: constitution

Thailand votes in favour of military-backed constitution

First published with the Guardian 7 August 2016

Thailand has overwhelmingly voted to accept a new military-backed constitution, despite fears among critics that it will undermine the power of the next elected government. The Election Commission of Thailand released its “unofficial” results just hours after the polls closed on Sunday.

With 90% of the votes counted, about 61% of voters had backed the new charter – the country’s 20th constitution since 1932. A 55% turnout fell well short of the 80% the commission had forecast, falling short even of the 57% who voted in the country’s last referendum in 2007.

Wantana Kasetsalee, a Thai parliamentary officer overseeing a polling station in Bangkok’s Ekkamai neighbourhood, told the Guardian there were fewer voters at her station than previous elections, yet she never doubted the outcome, and laughed when asked which way she voted. “Yes! Of course yes, [this constitution is] more useful for the people.”

The commission said the unofficial tally meant some 27.6 million Thais had voted atmore than 95,000 polling stations.

Having taken power in a 2014 coup, Thailand’s interim, military-backed National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) had presented the referendum as a major step on its roadmap to “fully functioning democracy”.

It claims the new constitution will enhance the ability of the next government to fight against corruption, while ensuring that the current programme of reforms will not be cut short. However, rights groups say the constitution extends too much power to the unelected NCPO, meaning its influence would remain well past its interim tenure.

The NCPO, which toppled the government of Yingluck Shinawatra in a coup in May 2014, has stifled the media and banned political gatherings. Ahead of the referendum, political rallies and open discussion about the constitution were banned, and criticism of the draft was made punishable by 10 years in jail. The targeted suppression of no vote campaigners resulted in what Amnesty International called “excessive, unnecessary and unjustifiable restrictions.”

On Sunday morning, in the Phaya Thai district of central Bangkok, the interim premier and leader of the NCPO, Prayuth Chan-ocha, cast his ballot before urging the country’s 50 million-strong electorate to follow his lead. “This is about the future of Thailand … let’s create a landslide [turnout] and make history.”

One woman in the crowd interrupted Prayuth, shouting: “Can you manage the country? Can you protect the country?” She was then quickly taken away by security.

Yingcheep Atchanont, a member of the ad-hoc Referendum Watch Network, told the Guardian that while it had concerns, no major voting irregularities had been witnessed by the group. “We have [received] a lot of reports, but they are mostly small things.”

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, an associate professor of political science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said the passing of the constitution “reinforces the trend, not just in Thailand but worldwide, in the popular disenfranchisement with politicians, money politics, corruption”, highlighting both the failures of the old political parties in motivating their supporters, and the NCPO’s spotlight on corruption.

“The military has been astute to capitalise and exploit this popular will against the political class. They’ve had effective propaganda in demonising politicians as being corrupt and corruption being the root of Thailand’s problems,” he said.

Approval for the charter also transfers to an approval of the military junta. “Before [the NCPO] had no popular mandate – they took power by force, and since then they’ve been running on empty,” Thitinan said. “This time, they will claim some legitimacy and go full steam ahead. The danger now is that they will be overconfident.”

Prayuth has promised elections in 2017.

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Thailand constitutional referendum: all your questions answered

First published with the Guardian 3 August, 2016

What’s happening?

On Sunday, 7 August 40.4 million eligible voters in Thailand will head to the polls in a referendum for a new constitution. More than 200,000 police officers will be deployed at 94,000 polling stations on the day.

What is the voting for?

Voters will be asked two questions requiring simple yes-no answers:

Do you accept the draft constitution?

Should the Upper House of Parliament be permitted to join the Lower House in selecting a Prime Minister?

Why has the draft constitution proven so controversial?

Having taken power after a 2014 coup, Thailand’s interim, military-backed National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has presented a constitutional referendum as a major step on their roadmap to “fully-functioning democracy”.

It claims the new constitution will enhance the ability of the next Government to fight against corruption while ensuring the NCPO’s current program of reforms will not be cut short. However, rights groups say the constitution extends too much power to the unelected NCPO, meaning their influence would remain well past their interim tenure.

Among the most controversial provisions is the NCPO appointment of the 250 seats of the Upper House in the next government. Within a bicameral parliament, an NCPO appointed upper house would mean a military-backed delegation are guaranteed a critical role in the next term. Critics say this could open the door for an unelected, military-backed Prime Minister.

What’s the context?

Since Thailand’s absolute monarchy ended in 1932, the country of 67 million has swept through nineteen different constitutions.

When ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a 2006 coup, Thailand entered a tumultuous political period of coups d’etat and elections, shaped along colour-coded lines of allegiance and protest. On one side are the so-called ‘red-shirt’ supporters, who are typically rural, working class groups and mostly back the Shinawatras. On the other side are the ‘yellow-shirts’, typically more urban, middle-class and firmly against the Shinawatras and their proxies.

In 2014 when demonstrations against Thaksin’s sister, then-premier Yingluck, led to her ouster in another military coup, the NCPO has been in charge of guiding the country back to the next democratic elections.

Who are the major players?

Thailand’s military-installed prime minister Prayuth , the man who spearheaded the military coup against Yingluck in 2014, the NCPO, the National Legislative Assembly and, to a lesser extent, former ‘yellow-shirt’ groups have all been pushing for a ‘Yes’ vote.

Two former prime ministers, Abhisit Vejjajiva and Yingluck Shinawatra, have publicly rejected the charter. ‘Red-shirt’ associated groups have also rejected the draft, while a number of student activist groups have been publicly campaigning for a ‘No’ vote.

How has campaigning been going?

Officially, campaigning for the referendum has been banned. The reality, however, has been a targeted suppression of ‘No’ campaigners.

On 21 July, a Red-shirt TV station was closed for 30 days, while over the past month, scores of activists and at least one journalist has been arrested under Article 61 of the controversial Referendum Act. The Act forbids any media from spreading “false information” which might influence voters, but also bans the spreading of “violent, aggressive, vulgar or coercive” information by any individual. Critics claim the imprecise, broad wording of the Act permits the targeting of ‘No’ campaigners.

The UN and multiple ambassadors have expressed concern of the clamp-down.

What is the likely outcome?

Thailand’s polls have proven to be as fickle as most, with the majority having the results looking tight with a small majority for the ‘Yes’ camp. However, the same polls also claim a large majority remain undecided.

With exit polling by media effectively banned, the exact results of the elections will have to wait until official announcements are made, up to three days after the event. However, it is expected a general idea of the result should be clear within hours of the polls closing.

What happens next?

A ‘Yes’ vote would allow the military-backed NCPO to claim legitimacy and prepare for elections slated irrespective of outcome for mid-2017. However, in the event of a rejected charter the NCPO would be obliged to offer another option, which could take months. When questioned about the possibility of a ‘No’ vote in the referendum, Prime Minister Prayuth quipped that he would simply write another one himself.

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Thailand Referendum: fears over fair vote as military cracks down on dissent

First published in the Guardian 3 August, 2016

Human rights groups have voiced concern about an upcoming constitutional referendum in Thailand, saying a ban on campaigning and a crackdown on dissent are preventing Thais from making an informed choice and potentially handing an advantage to the military.

More than 40 million voters will head to the polls on 7 August to give their verdict on proposed changes to the constitution that will, if approved, give increased power to the ruling military junta.

However, in the run-up to the vote, the junta passed a new law forbidding campaigning on the issue and also launched a crackdown on activists and the media.

Last month, Amnesty International warned that the Thailand’s controversial Referendum Act, which enshrined a possible 10-year jail sentences for anyone who defies it, was “unjustifiably restricting rights in advance of the referendum”.

More than 20 ambassadors from Europe, US and Canada also issued a public statement last month expressing joint concern about the ruling National Council for Peace and Order’s (NCPO) suppressive actions.

Article 61 of Thailand’s Referendum Act has been specifically targeted for harsh criticism from human rights groups, with its severe penalties applying vaguely to “anyone who disseminates text, pictures or sounds that are inconsistent with the truth.”

Sunai Phasuk, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher for Thailand, told the Guardian that such an atmosphere “does not allow Thai voters to make an informed choice.”

In place of open, public debate, the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) has instead relied on promulgating summaries of the draft provisions on TV, radio, online and in leaflets.

While they are supposed to be neutral and independent summarisations, Sunai said: “I had the chance to read the publication and it is clearly biased. It is along the lines of NCPO propaganda…In a way the ECT ends up being part of the [vote yes] campaign, while on the other hand we see almost daily suppression of the No vote.”

For Chiranuch Premchaiporn, director of local news site Prachatai, the vague remit of the ban on campaigning has hindered her staff members’ ability to effectively report on the constitution.

“Compared to previous votes, this is much different,” she told the Guardian, highlighting a growing sense of fear and self-censorship amongst both reporters and their subjects.

One month ago, Prachatai felt the full weight of the Referendum Act when one of their journalists was arrested and charged while covering the Vote No campaign of the anti-junta New Democracy Movement.

“We are hoping they drop the charge.” Chiranuch said.

Two weeks ago, Peace TV, a TV station supporting the ousted premier Yingluck Shinawatra, was banned from broadcasting for 30 days, thereby missing the immediate build up and aftermath of the referendum.

Despite the strict new laws, some activists are determined to oppose the new constitution.

Rangsiman Rome, co-founder of the New Democracy Movement, told the Guardian he is actively campaigning against the constitution, despite the risks.

“The draft process has had no civilian involvement.” He said, referencing the ruling military NCPO appointed drafting committee.

“The main thing it represents is the NCPO, the main thing it will do is prolong the power of the NCPO.”

As a result of distributing leaflets opposing the constitution, Rangsiman and more than a dozen of his activist friends have already found themselves in violation of the Referendum Act and are now facing possible 10-year long prison sentences.

Criticism of the NCPO’s expansive suppression of dissent has been a growing concern since the junta and its leader, prime minister Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha, came into power shortly after Yingluck Shinawatra’s removal in the 2014 military coup.

However, with the long-vaunted constitutional referendum approaching, the NCPO hope a victory deliver a mandate to kick-start their “roadmap to democracy”.

Yet where criticism has been permitted, it has been focused unremittingly on the content of the constitution itself.

Upon the draft charter’s public release in late March, a number of provisions immediately alarmed observers across political divides. Both Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party and their opposition Democrat party have publicly rejected the charter, citing articles which would weaken the elected lower house of parliament while extending the influence of the military.

The junta, meanwhile, has voiced a belief that the draft would provide the country with the means to operate with more stability, while combatting the endemic corruption that plagues the country’s politics.

“[The constitution] essentially enshrines the abuse of power and impunity,” Sunai said, highlighting the NCPO’s ability to appoint all 250 seats of the Upper House of Thailand’s Parliament. “With [those provisions], it doesn’t matter what else it says about the promotion and protection of human rights because that would not supersede the actions of the NCPO.”

Yet for Rangsiman and the NDM activists, the content of the constitution is almost besides the point. “To be honest, most people are not deciding on the content of the constitution,” he told the Guardian.

“What they are doing is they look at Prayuth and decide ‘Do I like what he is doing, or not?’ That is what this is about.”

 

 

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Egypt’s Constitutional Referendum

First Published on Vice January 16th 2014 

Inside one of Egypt’s polling stations. Photos by Amanda Mustard

For the past two days, Egyptians have been taking to the polls to officially pass judgment on thelatest iteration of the country’s constitution. As with most “yes” or “no” questions, there are only two outcomes. A “yes” majority would force interim President Adly Mansour to call for elections (either parliamentary or presidential) within a period of 30 to 90 days from the new constitution coming into effect. But, incredibly, there are no guiding procedures in the event of a “no” majority.

That might seem presumptuous, but, thankfully for the interim government, they have history on their side—there’s never been a “no” majority for any constitutional referendum in Egypt’s modern history.

The new constitution is widely perceived as an improvement on the 2012 version, which was drafted under ousted President Mohamed Morsi. But it’s not really all that different from its predecessor. Instead of starting from scratch, as was originally expected, amendments were made to contentious provisions in a long, drawn out process that finally ended with Mansour’s declaration of the referendum on December 12 of last year.

Despite the increased clarity about discrimination and violence against women, as well as a lengthened list of socio-economic rights, the draft still contains a number of articles that have worried analysts—like the one that could potentially weaken labor rights and freedoms—and maintains provisions that protect the continued use of military tribunals for civilians. Nevertheless, some are absolutely certain that the contents of the constitution are exactly what Egypt needs.

“I’ve read the entire constitution!” one man exclaimed proudly outside a polling station in the Cairo district of Shubra. “This is the constitution for Egypt. God bless Egypt and God bless [General Abdel Fattah el-] Sisi! I’ve written my favorite bits from the constitution here,” he smiled, showing off a piece of paper covered in writing.

The bomb-damaged front of the courthouse in Cairo’s Imbaba neighborhood

The opposition Anti Coup Alliance immediately declared their intentions to boycott the vote, worried that pushing for a “no” would somehow legitimize the incumbent powers and their new draft constitution. However, nothing resembling a boycott movement managed to work its way into the public consciousness. Instead, the “Vote Yes” campaign snapped up all the attention and advertising space.

By the first day of the vote, almost every lamppost along Cairo’s major bridges was adorned with a “Yes to the constitution!” poster. And giant billboards tenuously connect a “yes” vote to the 2011 revolution and the June 30 uprising that led to the fall of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. The message was clear: this isn’t just a vote for a constitution, this is a vote for the revolution and the martyrs.

The first day got off to a bad start, when an explosive device went off outside a courthouse in Cairo’s Imbaba neighborhood, some two hours before the polling stations opened on Tuesday morning.  Although no one was killed in the blast, it prompted an increased security presence—the worry being that there were similar acts planned for throughout this referendum period.

Despite the violent start, voter turnout for the first day was relatively high, with Egypt’s minister of administrative development claiming that 28 percent of the country’s registered voters had cast their ballot that day alone. However, scattered fighting in various governorates turned deadly for some—the Interior Ministry put the death toll at 12 at the close of the first day’s voting, and 250 were arrested.

Crowds outside a Cairo polling station with a poster of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi

On state TV, multiple feeds from polling stations all over Egypt showed long lines, with everyone smiling or waiting patiently.

Outside a school in the affluent neighborhood of Zamalek, a mother and her two teenagers strolled out of the polling station. Their fingers still wet with the voting ink, they responded to a question about how they had cast their votes. “Of course we all voted yes!” exclaimed the mother, Dina, apparently taken aback that there was even a possibility someone might vote no.

“This constitution is better than the one before. I didn’t vote in the referendum last year, but I knew it was my duty this time. It really is much, much better,” explained her son, Abdel Aziz, before she interjected: “There is justice here,” she said. “There is a future!” Her daughter Noor nodded in approval to what her brother and mother were saying. “We want everything to get better and this is the first step to that. No more fighting, a better economy, some stability,” she said.

“Stability” is a promise that seems to come back around during every voting period, and after three years of turmoil, death, coups and changing governments, the offer is more tantalizing now than ever. “The most important thing for Egypt right now is stability,” explained off-duty officer Mohamed Abdelmaher outside an Imbaba polling station. “Political stability, economic stability, social stability. Stability is absolutely the cure for all of Egypt’s problems.”

He held his young daughter’s hand tightly as he talked about the future of his country, repeatedly bringing up the need for stability and security. “I just voted ‘yes’ in the hope that there’s no more of that,” he said, pointing to the damaged facade of the courthouse. “God willing this is what the country needs.”

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Crisis Control: Morsi’s latest Non-Concession

“No ruler of any kind, qua ruler, exercises his authority, whatever its sphere, with his own interest in view, but that of the subject of his skill.  It is his subject and his subject’s proper interest to which he looks in all he says and does.” – The Republic

That Mohamed Morsi is partial to reading Plato in his spare time is unknown, but his management of the situation – since his ‘power-grabbing’ November 22nd Constitutional Decree until its annulment late on December 8th – suggests, at the very least, an affinity with Platonic sovereignty as well as a sly nod to Niccolo Machiavelli.

After a 9-hour ‘national dialogue meeting’ that excluded both Mohamed Morsi and the main opposition figures of the National Salvation Front (NSF), it was announced that the decree which had caused so much outrage was to be annulled.  International Media celebrated this ‘concession’ as a major breakthrough in the political impasse.

Morsi’s main defence on the appropriation of his vast powers was in a need to protect and speed up the process through which the country’s governmental foundations could be laid, and in so doing, allow Egypt’s real journey towards prosperity and justice to begin.

In other words, he deemed that due process and the concept of democracy outside of the ballot box – never mind public opinion – could take a backseat while he frogmarched the masses towards a future they didn’t even know they all wanted.  Within Morsi’s decree, the most important was the sudden unassailability of the contentious constituent assembly.

The deteriorating, and suddenly untouchable, constituent assembly – almost exclusively made up of old Islamist men – worked long hours to rush through a final draft before the Constitutional Court could pass a verdict on the Assembly’s representative legitimacy.

The question of legitimacy lay in the assembly’s make up: It’s 100-strong members had been proportionally drawn from the lower house of parliament; itself dissolved 5 months prior after it was discovered that independent seats had gone to party-affiliated candidates, such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).

The actual contents of the final draft seemed to invoke criticism from nearly every group bar those affiliated with the FJP. “A constitution that eliminates rights and limits freedoms. No to Dictatorship” was a message printed in 11 independent newspapers.  The full front page of the Egypt Independent newspaper this week simply read, “We object to continued restrictions on media liberties, especially after hundreds of Egyptians gave their lives for freedom and dignity.”

FJP senior advisor Gehad El-Haddad was kinder in his analysis, “It’s not perfect, but I think it s a very good basis from which we can move forward” although even he lamented the “compromising language” in some of the articles.

Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood appeared to have overestimated the political torpor of the Egyptian populace and overplayed their hand: a strangely naïve move that may be put down to a sudden surge in hubris after his praised role in the Gaza-Israel peace brokerage.

The masses came out as protests swept through the governorates. Opposition figureheads capitalised on the situation, uniting to create the ‘National Salvation Front’ (NSF) and gaining popular acceptance. In what is a symbiotic relationship, the people give the opposition figures the critical mass necessary to put demands to Morsi, while the protesters could now demonstrate under the political aegis of the NSF and avoid being easily labelled ‘heretical traitors’.

Meanwhile the Pro-Morsi side came out in support of the President.  The Muslim Brotherhood wanted to show the watching world that they too had numbers and outside Cairo University tens of thousands of pro-Morsi Egyptians showed up and duly answered the call.

Both sides rallied peacefully when separated, but the violence that eventually materialised 5 days ago in Heliopolis was inevitable.  The Muslim Brotherhood called on a march to where anti-Morsi protesters were demonstrating and the two-sides finally met – 8 people dying as a result.

The NSF said they would only enter into dialogue with Morsi after an annulment of his 22nd November decrees and a postponement on the referendum.  Morsi began borrowing from Mubarak’s playbook with paranoid conspiracy talk of “fifth columnists” before eventually succumbing to the pressure from the street and rescinding his decree of judicial immunity – but is this really a concession?

Those placated are the armed forces and the judges: Morsi had time to pass a law that grants the armed forces power of arrest and detainment of civilians (effective martial law); and the judges will be pleased that he is no longer above the law (a point that had them initially threatening to boycott supervision of the referendum, thus jeopardising its legitimacy).

The major point to note is that the referendum is still due to take place on December 15th.  What is arguably an illegitimate constitution has bypassed judicial scrutiny via Morsi’s initial decree and is now to be judged by the ballot box in 6 days time.

This is the reason why many in the opposition say there has been no concession.  The main point of contention was the validity of the assembly and any draft they released.  This point remains.  Instead, Morsi has rescinded his powers a week early (for it was due to expire after the voting anyway) and in so doing, offered a superficial misdirect while preserving the referendum.

Whereas the Muslim Brotherhood are, as an Egyptian journalist for Bloomberg put it to me, “very good at the ballot boxes”, the opposition are divided in whether to vote ‘no’, or to boycott what they see as an unreservedly illegitimate referendum.

In a press conference last night the NSF again announced their “total rejection” of the draft constitution and the referendum.  Never explicitly calling for a boycott or a vote saying ‘no’, they instead reiterated their call for peaceful protests to continue.

Therein lies the problem of the opposition forces, whether now or 20 months ago, they are in unison when objecting, but divided when it comes to offering answers, thereby giving the object of their ire more room for manoeuvre.  Room that, in this case, Morsi is fully capitalising on.

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Constitutional Crisis

Banner in Tahrir by Mohamed Mahmoud St reads "Muslim Brotherhood Forbidden Entry"

Banner in Tahrir by Mohamed Mahmoud St reads “Muslim Brotherhood Forbidden Entry”

President Mohamed Morsi’s opposition was given extra impetus today after the hugely controversial constituent assembly chose to ignore their two-month extension to rush through their final draft constitution.  The process was expedited in an uncharacteristic burst of energy from the assembly with more than 50 articles debated since Saturday.  Yesterday the assembly approved all 234 articles, one by one, after a marathon voting session that went on into the early hours of Friday morning.  Under Article 60 of the March 30th Constitutional Declaration, the referendum for the draft’s ratification is due to take place within 15 days.

Morsi has promised to renounce his extra powers once a constitution is in place and a lower house has been elected.  In what many see as yet more political strong-arming from Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, they see the choice offered them as lose-lose situation: vote no and continue to live with a President who holds ‘dictatorial powers’, or vote yes and have a constitution that many feel is unrepresentative and inadequate.

Mass walkouts and resignations from liberals, Christians and the journalist syndicate meant that only 74 of the original 100 members were at the final day’s proceedings, 51 of them from various Islamic groups.  Hossam al-Gheriany, the chairman of the assembly, started the day by adding 11 reserve members to the assembly’s members (the majority from the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafi Nour Party) bringing the total up to 85.  Of these 85, there was not a single Christian and only 4 women, all of them Islamists.

At the beginning of the day, the much-discussed article 2, that the principles of Islamic Sharia are the primary source of legislation, was passed unanimously.

There also appears to be inherent contradictions in several of the articles, especially pertaining to freedom of expression.  Article 31 prohibits “insulting the prophets”, article 44 prohibits disparaging the “dignity of the human” whilst article 43 somehow guarantees the freedom of expression.

A praiseworthy edit was made to article 36 with the explicit addition of “torture”.  It now stipulated that the torture and humiliation of detainees would not happen, adding that they must be held in a morally and ethically appropriate place.

In contrast, Article 198, on the military justice system, accepted the military trials of civilians “only in crimes that harm the armed forces”.  The military trial of civilians is a phenomenon many Egyptians hoped would be banished.

Heba Morayef, Human Rights Watch Egypt Director, pointed out that the highest number of objections came with regards to Article 219 defining the principles of Sharia.  The Salafis in the assembly wanted it moved to the front of the constitution as an addendum to article 2.  After some discussion it remained where it was.

Many of the articles drew fire from Morsi’s opposition, specifically with regard to the semantics.  But others were more lenient with regards to some of the more obtuse wording.  “Some of the language is compromising, which is unfortunate, but they are trying to appease everyone with this constitution,” says Gehad El-Haddad, Senior Advisor to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party.  El-Haddad conceded that the constitution was not perfect but replied “look at the American or French constitution, were they perfect when first drawn up? How many amendments do they contain?  This constitution is a good basis from which we can move forward”.

Nobel Peace Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei seemed certain the constitution was destined to fail, “It will be a part of political folklore and will go to the rubbish bin of history” he said in an interview on private al-Nahar TV.  El-Haddad, meanwhile, remained “optimistic” of its chances in the referendum.

The schism between Morsi’s proponents and opponents was further highlighted when both sides called for two separate rallies to showcase their support.  The opposition inundated the square once again today.  ElBaradei and ex-presidential candidates Amr Moussa and Hamdeen Sabahi made an appearance and announced that they would be sleeping on Tahrir.  The Muslim Brotherhood plan to hold their million-man march outside Cairo University tomorrow.

Initially the plan was for the Brotherhood to come to Tahrir tomorrow, but the obvious clashes that would result meant that they had to make a late change in venue.  The Brotherhood had already been forced to call off a march to Tahrir last Tuesday in the face of the massive opposition rally that flooded the square.  Tahrir Square, the symbol of Egypt’s revolution, has denied the entry to the Muslim Brotherhood twice in a week.

Update: State TV has reported that Morsi went to Sharbatly mosque today for Friday prayers and was heckled.  The Imam attempted to bless the presidential decrees and reportedly compared Morsi to the Prophet, causing outrage in the mosque where Morsi was trapped for an unspecified time.

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Hundreds of Thousands Protest Morsi Decree

First published in the New Internationalist

A copt speaks from the stage

On Thursday 22nd November 2012, Egypt’s President Morsi issued new constitutional declarations; then all hell broke loose.

The stock market plunged a staggering 9.57 percentage points by Sunday.  The fighting between the CSF (Central Security Forces) and protesters intensified.  Judges around Egypt have gone on strike.  22 Egyptian Rights Organisations unequivocally rejected the declarations in a joint statement.  18 political parties and groups called on Morsi to rescind the declarations. Yet more members of the constituent assembly resigned.  3 protesters have died.  Today, demonstrations swept through the governorates as hundreds of thousands of Egyptians made it clear that they were not indifferent to the matter.

Morsi’s declarations resulted in: the removal of the despised prosecutor general; the retrial of anyone convicted, from the revolution to his appointment as president, with regards to protester deaths; the immunity of the Shura council (upper house of parliament) from dissolution; the immunity of the constituent assembly from dissolution; the authority for the President to take any measures he sees fit in order to “preserve and safeguard the revolution”; and the immunity of any decree made by the President from any body, judicial or otherwise.

From a man that already held executive and absolute legislative authority, this attack on the judiciary has raised eyebrows and a fair few tempers too.  “The balance and separation of powers in Egypt has been utterly demolished” say 22 Egyptian Rights Organisations in a joint statement released Saturday.  They assert that Morsi has contravened the goal of the revolution – democratisation – and that the arrogation of these unparalleled powers portends a “bleak future for Egyptian rights and liberties”.

Morsi defended his decision by saying he would give the powers back once a constitution and people’s assembly (lower house of parliament) was in place.  In a statement he reiterated “the temporary nature of those measures, which are not intended to concentrate power, but to avoid…attempts to undermine democratically elected bodies and preserve the impartiality of the judiciary”.  Many were less than convinced.  Mohamed ElBaradei, Nobel Peace Prize recipient and head of the Constitution Party, cautioned that Morsi had appointed himself “Egypt’s new pharaoh”.

18 political opposition parties and groups joined together to form a “National Front” tasked with opposing the declarations.  Among their members is ElBaradei, and ex-presidential candidates Hamdeen Sabahi and Amr Moussa.  On Monday, they called on Morsi to annul the declaration and refuse to have any dialogue with him until he has done so.  The opposition parties called for a massive demonstration to be held in Tahrir Square today and the people have duly delivered with the square as full as it has ever been.

Tents were set up in the middle of Tahrir Square as soon as Morsi’s declarations were made with people promising a sit-in protest until the decision was overturned.  One of the first to arrive was 79 year-old Khaled Hamza a play writer and outspoken communist – Hamza spent 5 years in prison during Nasser and Sadat’s premiership due to his activism.  “Mohamed Morsi-Mubarak is a dictator now, but he has even more power than a dictator” said Hamza, his insistence on referring to Morsi as ‘Morsi-Mubarak’ emphasised this view.

Beside banners saying “Egypt for all Egyptians” (perhaps an allusion to the Islamist-heavy make up of the controversial Constituent Assembly) and while the crowd chanted “One Hand” Hamza explained the aura of unity he felt, “Today we are united in our anger at Morsi-Mubarak, nobody would care if I told them I am a communist now”.

By evening the Square was completely packed, chants of the initial revolution were now being directed at their incumbent president, “Down with the regime”.  But there were newer ones too “Morsi is Mubarak”, “Morsi is the new Pharaoh”.

Fighting with the CSF has been constant in central Cairo since the 1-year anniversary of the Mohamed Mahmoud St clashes 8 days ago.  267 people have been detained in connection with the anniversary clashes and 3 have died during protests this last week.  Another large concrete wall has been erected – a not unusual sight in downtown Cairo – blocking off Kasr El Aini St. off Tahrir Square to stop the fighting; instead it has just moved to Simon Boulevard.

It’s very clear that Morsi has to deal with this soon, before it gets out of hand.  The masses are angry and the people are united.  They realise that even if Morsi is honestly trying to speed Egypt into a new era of freedom and democracy, using dictatorial powers seems a slightly perverse way to get there.

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