President Mohammad Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood, from which he comes, continued to resist popular pressure with a half-hearted concession combined with more threats on Saturday.
A meeting was held at the presidential palace with “opposition figures” that mostly included his supporters and opposition figures who are marginal to the present movement. No central figures or opposition parties were represented, having boycotted the summit.
Afterwards Morsy’s Prime Minister announced that his constitutional decree would be mostly rescinded but that the contentious referendum on the constitution draft would go forward.
This threatens to split the movement by granting what had been one of the demands of the movement. However, as many activists pointed out, this concession is effectively meaningless since the decree was intended to insure that the draft constitution that was agreed in a marathon session of the Constituent Assembly went forward.
More worryingly, statements by the Brotherhood leadership indicated a continued hardline against protests, which has already led to hundreds of injuries and several deaths. Morsy’s aides also mooted the possibility of declaring a form of martial law if protests continued. The military also announced that it would enter the fray if the instability continued.
This is an indication that the military leadership will come down on the side of Morsy and the Brotherhood. After decades of repressing the Brotherhood this seems like an anachronism. But in reality it’s not surprising since the constitutional draft guarantees that the military will retain its status as a “state within the state”. They are granted immunity from democratic oversight, including of the military budget. It also allows the military to try civilians in military courts and does nothing to challenge the military’s enormous economic power. Some estimates have the military controlling up to 20 per cent of the Egyptian economy.
The constitution draft also permits the repression of the media, including the arrest of journalists and shutting down media. It also effectively outlaws independent unions by forbidding any industry from having more than one union representing workers – meaning that the state controlled unions cannot be challenged.
The Brotherhood leaders also used sectarian attacks on the Coptic Christian minority in their press statements.
The main opposition organizations, however, continue to call for mobilizations before the referendum, set for December 15. The fact that Morsy is turning to the military is a sign of how desperate they are to contain the present crisis. Likewise the attempts at partial concessions.
If the mobilizations can deepen and spread – as they seemed to do on Friday with demonstrations even in rural areas that have historically been Brotherhood strongholds - the slow and partial retreat of Morsy and the Brotherhood can become more pronounced. If nothing else it will ensure a large “no” vote in the referendum that will lay the basis for future struggles to extend the rights of woman, minorities and workers.