Egypt’s constitutional crisis, explained as a simple timeline

December 6, 2012

Protesters gather outside the presidential palace in Cairo. (AP Photo/Mostafa Elshemy)

Do not make the mistake, on seeing the photos and videos of Egyptian protests that have devolved into pitched battles on some Cairo streets, according to The Times of London's Evan Hill, of thinking that is is just status quo, another day of angry protest in a country that has seen so many.

What's happening in Cairo right now is a big deal, the culmination of an increasingly fraught eight-month constitutional fight that is itself part of the nearly two-year struggle for the future of the Arab world's most populous nation.

"Heliopolis is a disaster," Hill wrote Wednesday afternoon, early evening Cairo time. "Broken glass, destroyed cars and shop windows. Neighborhood checkpoints up, just like in [the] 18 days [of Egypt's initial revolution in January and February last year]." The Post's Abigail Hauslohner reports from Cairo on the increasingly divided nation, with protesters camped outside the presidential palace, parts of the judiciary turning against the executive, and opposition leader Mohamed El Baradei calling on the military to side with the demonstrators. Their demands include the president's resignation.

How did it get this bad? This timeline of the long-building constitutional crisis, and the larger post-Mubarak political crisis of which it is a major component, shows both its development and its  unknowable trajectory.

Feb. 11, 2011: Hosni Mubarak resigns. The 18-day revolution toppled Mubarak's dictatorship but left the military in charge of the country – and its suddenly uncertain future.

March 30, 2011: Military leaders announce a provisional constitution. It's only supposed to be a temporary stopgap until Egyptians can democratically elect a parliament, which will then appoint a special assembly to write a permanent constitution.

November 2011 through January 2012: Egyptians elect a parliament. Islamists do very well.

March 26, 2012: Constitution-writing assembly forms. Parliament appoints the members of the Constituent Assembly to draft the new constitution. Like the parliament, it is dominated by Islamists, and heavily criticized as not representative of Egypt. A poll two weeks later estimates that 82 percent of Egyptians want the assembly to be reformed to be more inclusive.

April 10, 2012: A court suspends the constitutional assembly. Activists had brought a number of legal challenges. Though the court didn't give a response, the suspension was widely seen as a move to reset the Islamist-dominated assembly.

June 7-12, 2012: New constitutional assembly forms. This one came after negotiation between parliament's major parties, Islamist and non-Islamist, but its unveiling is still met with walkouts, protests, and legal challenges.

September and October, 2012: Non-Islamists boycott the assembly. Opposition leaders accuse the assembly of forcing through an Islamist agenda and subverting the interests of women, youth, and the Christian minority.

Nov. 22, 2012: Morsi decrees that courts can't dissolve the assembly. This part of the Islamist president's surprising announcement sometimes gets lost in discussion of the sweeping powers he granted himself, but it's crucial for understanding what comes next.

Nov. 29, 2012: Assembly suddenly reveals finished constitution. Keep in mind that many non-Islamist members are boycotting, so the assembly's draft constitution reflects Islamists' sharia-heavy politics. That Morsi, a fellow Islamist, shielded the assembly from the more secular courts exacerbates fears in Egypt of an Islamist takeover. It doesn't help that the assembly unveils its draft so soon after the decree.

Dec. 4, 20121: Protesters reach the presidential palace. Located several miles from activist-central in Tahrir Square and protected as a "red line" during the Mubarak era, this is a major symbolic moment. The palace is located in the upscale suburb of Heliopolis, not a traditionally Islamist place. Pro-Morsi protesters gather as well, and fighting begins.

Dec. 15, 2012: Scheduled date of a national referendum on the constitution. The government set the up-or-down vote for just a week and a half from now. The timing heightens the urgency of protesters who fear Morsi will attempt to force through an Islamist-friendly constitution and reduces the odds that now-weakened courts will be able to intervene in time. Morsi is under intense pressure to reconsider the timing and the constitution but has not budged.

So what happens next? Protesters and activists are demanding the same thing they've been asking for since before Mubarak's departure, and don't seem to believe they're getting now: inclusion.

First that meant establishing democracy, and now it means assuring that the system is fully democratic. Assembling a crowd-pleasing constitution-drafting authority is not easy, and the activists have done plenty to remove themselves from the process. The boycott emboldened Islamists. How Morsi's government resolves this conflict, or doesn't, will be much more than just a test case for Egyptian democracy, but potentially a formative moment in the country's post-Mubarak history.

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