By Hani Sabra
Egypt was rocked on October 12 by yet another violent demonstration in Cairo's iconic Tahrir Square, but this time the two groups fighting were erstwhile comrades who had cooperated to bring down the previous regime. The street fighting between Egypt's young secularist revolutionaries and the Muslim Brotherhood's core supporters marks the opening of a rift between the two groups that had been threatening to emerge ever since the heady days after former president Mubarak was forced from power. It also could set the stage for ongoing tensions and perhaps weakening international support for the Islamist dominated government.
The cause of the fighting was a broadening dispute over Egypt's constitution. It's been nearly two years since former president Hosni Mubarak was ousted but the country is only now likely to get a new constitution in the next few months. The document, when it is finally approved, will probably only satisfy the nation's Islamists who are taking the lead given their slim majority in the constituent assembly that is drafting the new constitution and their majority among the population.
Egypt's Islamists have made it clear that they are completely willing to move ahead with their version of the constitution without buy-in from secularists or the Copts. And even if a court order dissolves the current constituent assembly (as was parliament) President Mohamed Morsy would move quickly to appoint a new assembly that would be of a similar makeup.
When the assembly releases a draft for a public referendum, it will pass. The last yes or no referendum in Egypt was in March 2011 soon after Mubarak was ousted. The Islamists then urged their supporters to support the constitutional amendments and the final tally was 77 percent in favor. The secular argument against a more Islamist-leaning constitution and in favor of one that stresses human rights, press freedom, and some separation between religion and state, does not resonate with a majority of the population, which is eager to end the constitutional vacuum.
Unfortunately, a new constitution will not settle Egypt's transitional woes. Continued tension, instability, and violence are likely to continue given that the young revolutionaries who sparked the movement to oust Mubarak, most of the establishment secular politicians, and their supporters are increasingly unhappy with Islamist efforts to monopolize politics. These groups represent a minority, but they are vocal and their anger is growing as evidenced by the ugly brawl between Islamists and the secularists.
The revolutionary activists are embittered and believe the Brotherhood has betrayed them. Many of these young secularists backed the Brotherhood for the past year and half and even voted for Morsy in the second round of the presidential election when he faced Mubarak confidant Ahmad Shafik. They also supported Morsy's move to sideline the two most senior Mubarak-era generals. In exchange, the revolutionaries believed the Muslim Brotherhood would honor its promise to ensure that the constitution would be broad-based, and that it be a truly democratic founding document. This will not be the case. In fact, early drafts raise concerns on issues such as women's rights, religious tolerance, and freedom of expression, spurring sharp criticism from local activists and international organization such as Human Rights Watch.
The revolutionaries do not have the public support or the capacity to force adoption of a more liberal constitution or bring down the Morsy government. But they can make the next several months difficult for the Muslim Brotherhood, and they probably will. More clashes like the recent episode in Tahrir Square are likely, and will attract exactly the kind of attention that Morsy's government would prefer to avoid, given that it wants to project an air of stability for foreign investors and governments.
Hani Sabra is an analyst in Eurasia Group’s Middle East practice.