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Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood sets constitution showdown for tomorrow

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At 10 a.m. in Cairo tomorrow (3 a.m. Eastern Standard Time), Egypt's battle between Islamists and a loose coalition of secular politicians and political activists over the country's new constitution looks set to come to a head.

The Muslim Brotherhood announced that the country's constituent assembly will hold an up or down vote then on a new draft constitution that has roiled Egyptian politics for months. If it passes a body that appears packed with Islamist politicians, most of those from the Brotherhood, the constitution will then be put to a national referendum. One caveat is that, in the coinage of political scientist Marc Lynch, Egyptian politics since Mubarak have resembled Calvinball, with rules and deadlines and statements shifting constantly.  

Nevertheless President Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood politician who became the country's first freely elected president last June, appears committed to his current course. He's gambling the move will defuse an increasingly tense situation on the streets of Cairo. In the past week he's boldly (or recklessly, depending on your point of view) moved to break the constitutional impasse.

At the end of last week he issued a decree removing judicial oversight from the process, since he feared Egypt's judges would nullify the constituent assembly much as they'd nullified the election of parliament in June. That move had secular political forces warning that he was setting himself up as a dictator. The Brotherhood shot back that it was only a temporary move to ease passage of a constitution.

A sprawling constitution

But the constitution was the real issue all along. Secular Egyptians feared that Morsi and his Islamist allies were crafting a basic legal text that would move the country starkly in the direction of Islamic law, and argued that it was being drafted by a group that was far from representative of Egyptian society. From their point of view, they've been given two options: Live with Morsi holding all executive and legislative power, with broad immunity from judicial interference to boot; or, approve the constitution he favors.

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Politicians on the assembly like Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister and Arab League chief who unsuccessfully ran for president, complained in recent weeks they weren't being given anywhere near sufficient time to review an ever-changing, expanding document, that at last count had over 230 articles.

Drafts of the sprawling constitution have been filled with vague, at times contradictory language, while also calling Islamic law (sharia) "the" basis for Egyptian law rather than "a" basis, a crucial distinction. Further, they've envisioned a role for the unelected Islamic jurists of Al Azhar University in settling some constitutional matters.

What precisely will be voted on tomorrow? At this point, it's unclear. Egyptian newspapers are reporting more changes made in the past few days, including one report that a change has enshrined the military's controversial power to try civilians in military courts in some circumstances. In the absence of a clear public document with a chance for the public to review, rumors will fly and confusion will reign.

What will happen next? 

The Brotherhood, responding to the over 100,000 anti-Morsi protesters who gathered in Tahrir Square yesterday, has been calling for a "million man march" on Saturday in support of the president and his constitutional moves and to "protect the achievements of the revolution." The anti-Morsi protesters, many of them the original organizers of the protests and marches that drove Hosni Mubarak from power in February 2011, have vowed to be on the streets Saturday too. It's an explosive situation, with many analysts and activists in Cairo warning that it could come to blows.

Where is the military in all this? Unclear. But if there is chaos on the streets, the chances of the military returning to the open role in Egyptian politics that it only recently vacated can't be ruled out.

And what of the referendum? Issandr El Amrani, a keen analyst of Egyptian politics, is worried, pointing out that Egypt's judiciary, which veered toward open revolt against Morsi in the past few days, is key to the organization of Egyptian elections.

"Even if it's approved tomorrow, there has to be a referendum on it. Victory is not guaranteed and a referendum will take at least a couple of weeks to organize. The supervisory commission to run it would be difficult to form, because it has to include senior judges who would likely boycott it, and judges are supposed to also be present at polling stations. All this points to a royal mess, a constitution that has no legitimacy among a big part of the public, and gives the opportunity to the Salafis — whose votes the Brothers now need to approve the latest draft — to introduce modifications to the text."

The Salafis are the Islamist faction that, when it comes to the role of women in society and the overall interpretation of the sharia, are to the right of the Muslim Brotherhood.

For the moment, it looks like the Muslim Brotherhood, which has long been the best organized popular political force in the country, has won this round.

But at what cost for Egypt and its stability?

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