CAIRO — Just hours after an Islamist-dominated assembly approved a new national constitution Friday morning, tens of thousands of protesters began pouring into Tahrir Square to say they objected to nearly everything about it.
They objected to the constitution-writing assembly itself, which they said was unrepresentative after liberal, secular and Christian members walked out. They objected to what they knew of the charter, which does not contain explicit protections for minority religions or women’s rights and which many referred to as the “Muslim Brotherhood constitution,” a reference to the Islamist backers of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi.
And on the eighth day after Morsi decreed himself near-absolute powers in the name of preserving democratic gains, a disparate array of protesters chanted “down with Morsi” and other revolutionary slogans first uttered during the popular uprising that toppled Egypt’s longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak nearly two year ago.
“I came down here to say no to the constitution and no to the constitutional declaration,” said Hanaa Sweries, a former teacher who was protesting in Tahrir Square for the first time Friday, referring to Morsi’s decree. “I knew from the start what he would do, but what is a surprise to me is that there are clashes so soon. I expected goodwill would last longer.”
And so it was that what was supposed to be a proud moment in the course of post-Mubarak Egypt — the birth of a new national charter to guide the path forward — degenerated into one more disappointment to liberals who seem ever more distrustful of Morsi and stunned at what their fragile democratic transition has wrought.
The constitution now goes to Morsi’s office. If he approves it, Morsi must call for a public referendum on the charter within the next two weeks.
On Friday, the State Department weighed in on the deepening political crisis, expressing concern over the “apparent lack of consensus during the drafting process.”
“If President Morsi approves this constitution, then the people of Egypt will have a chance via referendum to express their views on it,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. “So we would urge all Egyptians to participate actively in that, to review this draft to ensure it meets the highest standards of their aspirations to live in a country that respects universal human rights, that ensures that Egyptians of all stripes are protected under the law.”
The constitution, which was being changed and re-punctuated even as it was being voted on in a 13-hour session that stretched from Thursday into Friday morning, represents neither the worst fears nor the highest hopes of Egyptians.
It affirms that Egyptian law stems from “the principles of Islam,” for instance, but did not codify some of the strict moral codes that Morsi’s more fundamentalist Islamist backers wanted. The charter states that no law can limit the freedoms and rights set out in the constitution yet also says that the expression of those freedoms cannot undermine the “true nature of the family.” Freedom of religion is explicitly protected for Muslims, Christians and Jews, but not other religions.
But the view in Tahrir Square on Friday seemed to be that whatever is in the new constitution’s 234 articles, the process that brought it about was so deeply flawed that the charter could not possibly be supported.
“I don’t like whatever it says,” said one protester, a doctor who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The way it was passed, I’m not happy.”
Beyond Cairo, demonstrations sprang up Friday in Alexandria and other cities across Egypt to signal resistance to the charter, which remains mired in legal chaos stemming from Morsi’s ongoing power struggle with Mubarak-era judges. Egypt’s highest court dissolved the Islamist-dominated parliament this summer and had threatened to dissolve the Islamist-dominated constitution-drafting panel, too, prompting the body to hustle the draft constitution to approval in a 13-hour session that ended near dawn Friday.
Morsi has repeatedly cast last week’s decree as a measure necessary to speed Egypt’s democratic transition, saying that he would relinquish his newly acquired powers once the constitution is fully adopted.
“Unfortunately, Morsi has made a mistake, which is that he has become understandably frustrated with how difficult it is to move the political process forward in Egypt,” said Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, referring to Morsi’s decree, which places nearly all his actions beyond judicial review. “He decided he needed to step in and enforce his will to make something happen, rather than compromise. However, it is important for Morsi to realize it’s not only the text of the constitution that will establish its legitimacy but the process by which that text was reached. And that process fell apart.”
Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood backers and the more ultra-conservative Salafist Nour Party have called for large demonstrations of support for him Saturday, a sign that they are willing to battle for a kind of legitimacy in the street that they failed to achieve through the courts or compromise.
“This is definitely a moment of high tension and high anxiety,” Dunne said. “Particularly if you start to have large crowds of demonstrators along this secular-Islamist divide really attacking each other. That would be truly distressing, and some people have started to speculate about whether the military would step in once again.”
Anne Gearan in Washington and Amer Shakhatreh contributed to this report.