Fasten your seat belts please

From the Daily News of Egypt:

  /   December 5, 2012  /

The mood was tense last Thursday as anti-Islamist protesters continued their sit-in in Tahrir Square, demanding that President Mohammed Morsy annul the constitutional declaration he had issued a week before.

Liberals and leftists had all come together to adopt a common stance: “No to absolute powers for the president.”They vowed to continue their sit-in until the president rescinds his edict. Judges also denounced President Morsy’s power grab that placed his decisions above judicial review, calling it an assault on the judiciary.

Islamist supporters had meanwhile planned their own rally the following day outside Cairo University to express solidarity with the president. With at least two protesters dead and scores injured already, concerns were growing that a bloody confrontation between Islamist supporters and opposition activists might take place on the so-called Friday of Shari’a and legitimacy. Some analysts even warned of an imminent civil war if the constitutional crisis was not contained.

Controversy over the draft constitution had also deepened. Liberals and Christians on the 100- member Constituent Assembly had walked out saying that the assembly was dominated by Islamists and was not representative of minorities and women.

President Morsy had given a two-month timeline to complete the draft charter saying that it would be put to a popular referendum and be followed by legislative elections.

Failing to persuade the liberals and Christians to return to the panel to complete their task, Morsy gave directives to the Chairman of the Constituent Assembly Counsellor Hossam El-Gheriany to finalise the draft by Saturday, ahead of a ruling by the Supreme Constitutional Court that had widely been expected to dissolve the assembly and the Shura Council.

It was in the midst of all the political turmoil that I received a request from Presidential Spokesman Yasser Ali to interview President Morsy later that same day. An interview scheduled at such short notice could only mean that the president had an important announcement to make, I thought.

Perhaps he had decided to offer concessions to ease the standoff with the judges or scrap his extraordinary decree altogether. Those were my thoughts as I rode in a taxi to the presidential palace through the dense Thursday afternoon traffic.

I was proud to have been chosen as one of the two anchors who were to conduct the interview but I was also aware that viewers would expect me to challenge the president on his controversial decree and to ask probing questions.

On arrival at the palace, I was greeted by Yasser Ali and the Presidential aide for Political Affairs Pakinam El Sharkawy who both said that I was free to ask any questions as long as I observed the standard protocol of addressing the president as “His Excellency” or “Mr. President.”  That was the sole instruction given to me before the interview.

It was a far cry from the days of Morsy’s predecessor Hosni Mubarak when all state TV interviews had been staged and the content was more at the hands of the then-Minister of Information Anas El Fekky and before him, Safwat el Sherif. Co-interviewer Tamer Hanafi and I were then left alone to discuss our questions and plan for the interview.

Two hours later, we were led to the room where the interview was to take place immediately after Maghreb prayers. Morsy walked in minutes later and greeted us in a gracious manner. I was surprised that he shook hands with me as I knew that most male members of the Muslim Brotherhood are often reluctant to shake hands with women.

Having twice met Morsy (in 2005 and 2009), before he was elected Egypt’s first civilian president, I felt completely at ease. His modesty and down to earth attitude also helped me feel comfortable in his presence.

In the hour-long interview Tamer and I quizzed the president over domestic issues ranging from his controversial edict and a possible escalation in street violence, to Coptic fears that their rights would be undermined under Islamist rule.

I also voiced my concerns as a liberal woman about Shari’a Law, asking if it would curtail the rights of women. I also asked the president what had led him to change his position on the IMF loan, suggesting it was likely to put a heavy burden on the poor, already struggling to make ends meet.

Rather than offer the widely-anticipated concessions on the constitutional declaration, the president reiterated his earlier stance that his new powers are “temporary and necessary to take the country out of the bottleneck towards democratic transition.”

While welcoming peaceful opposition, he vowed to deal harshly with dissidents attempting to derail the political process or those who use violence to attain their goals. Insisting there was a ‘conspiracy’ aimed at hindering efforts to rebuild the country.

President Morsy did not elaborate on the “threats” that had led him to resort to what critics describe as “an authoritarian power grab.”

The president also downplayed the concerns of minority Christians who, in the past year, have faced threats from Muslim extremists and on several occasions have been forced to evacuate their homes.

Denying that many Copts had been forced to flee the country, Morsy repeated the Mubarak-era slogan that “Muslims and Christians were one fabric of the society.” He also rejected use of the term “minority” to describe Egypt’s Christian population saying Christians were equal citizens who would be protected by the law. He also appealed for unity and calm, urging Egyptians to show respect for one another and be more tolerant.  “Egyptians have had their first taste of freedom and are learning about democracy” he said.

Morsy’s words however, failed to pacify the opposition activists in Tahrir. Instead the interview triggered a barrage of criticism in both the traditional media and on social media networks.”No to dictatorship” read a front page banner in bold red print in the independent Al-Tahrir newspaper the following day.

Internet users meanwhile exchanged humorous posts on Facebook and Twitter stating that “love would help Egypt overcome its current woes.” My inbox was choked with hundreds of messages from viewers, some congratulating me on my scoop while others criticised my inability to get straight answers and from the president.

Moreover, a video clip of an angry Salafi Sheikh condemning me for being unveiled was widely circulated on the internet.

While it may be true that my less than fluent Arabic language did pose a hurdle, I remain fully convinced that even the most proficient interviewer would not have gotten more direct answers from the president. Besides, the opposition activists in Tahrir were not prepared to settle for anything less than a complete reversal of the president’s latest decisions.

At this time of deep polarisation, the level of tolerance among Egyptians is at an all-time low. This generation has inherited a legacy of mistrust and fear of the Muslim Brotherhood, for decades demonised as radicals who pose a threat to the society.

The liberals are suffering from Ikhwanophobia and fear Shari’a Law will be imposed under Muslim Brotherhood rule. A campaign by the independent media, vilifying Islamists, has in recent months fuelled such fears. Fierce denunciation by judges of the recent presidential decree has also raised serious concerns about the future independence of the judiciary.

As a matter of fact, the Muslim Brotherhood is a moderate movement and the new charter that’s up for a popular vote in less than two weeks’ time has retained the exact wording of Article 2 in the previous 1971 constitution stipulating that the “principles of Shari’a are the source of legislation in the country.”

Responding recently to chants by his Islamist supporters of “The people want Shari’a law to be implemented,” President Morsy said that “Sharia Law means freedom, social justice and rule of law.”H is words however, have done little to allay the fears of a sceptical public.

Senior State Council Judges have now announced that they will oversee the referendum on the draft constitution on 15 December. Other lower-ranked judges from the influential Judges Club however remain defiant in their boycott of the referendum. Ahmed Abdullahi, a political columnist in the Daily Nation wrote in his column on 4 December that the judicial outburst that followed Morsy’s declaration was “the conundrum that faces agents of reform at times when the old order throws the last kicks of a dying horse.”

“How can a judiciary that for decades was so timid and loyal, and was an appendage of the Mubarak apparatus, be so loud during revolutionary moments like now? ” he asked, adding that “in dictatorships, the judiciary is always a strong ally used by the rulers as a legitimate tool to preserve their power and oppress the masses.

It is a powerful bulwark against the overthrow of the political order.”  I totally agree,  our first democratically elected parliament was after all dissolved by the Supreme Constitutional Court at the behest of General Tantawi . And haven’t former regime loyalists been acquitted in cases connected with the killing of protesters during the revolution? It makes one wonder if the judges’ symbiotic relationship with the old regime is the real reason why none of the accused have been convicted.

While I do not condone the constitutional declaration, it is my conviction that President Morsy will use the sweeping powers he gained to purge the judiciary and other state institutions of former regime loyalists – vital steps if Egypt is to make a smooth transition to democracy.

I expect a lot more instability in the period ahead as the former regime fights for survival within the new order. I hope that Egyptians will be cast aside their scepticism and be patient, strong and resilient enough to endure the coming period of turbulence. Please fasten your seat belts.

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