A slew of critical developments in the Middle-East makes an aspiring commentator’s life rather hard. You feel obliged not to make sweeping predictions on a day to day basis that could variably be proven right or wrong due to the uncertainty abound. How long will this latest ceasefire between Hamas and Israel last? How effective will Mohammed Morsi be as a key mediator? Will we ever turn our attention back to Syria as we never did for so much West African drought and starvation? What of Palestinian ascension to non-member observer state in the UN and Israel’s bewilderingly petulant response of further settlement building in the West Bank? All pressing questions, though by my own admission superseded by the disassociated actions of the now ambiguous superstar of the hour, Egyptian President Morsi.
Not a day a after the previous article in which I praised the recently elected moderate Islamist for his tempered response to Israel’s far overreaching response to militancy in the Gaza Strip, did he do something quite unexpected. Issuing a decree against the largely unpopular judiciary that prevented any further decree from being blocked, he ignited a storm, with a predominately secular opposition quick to accuse him of establishing yet another Pharaoh-like autocratic form of rule. It is well within the nature of oppositions to say occasionally hyperbolic things against the incumbent but here in Egypt, barely relieved of the shadow of Mubarak’s long and unfortunate tenure, the shock and revulsion takes on a far less opportunistic tone.
And lo do we see another Middle-Eastern nation simultaneously consumed again with political instability. Not a moment after the opposition protesters said their piece against Morsi’s audacity, did the Islamist supporters rally back in praise of their man. It’s a difficult situation to parse as despite the obvious concerns associated with self-appointed executive authority, Morsi was very quick to try and diffuse the situation with certain assurances. The decree was more limited in scope than initially assumed, and part of a broader draft constitution which is in itself a remarkable process for Egypt to be going through in light of recent history. It includes limitations to presidential terms and civilian oversight of the military.Yet Tahrir Square remained brimming with a feisty atmosphere of defiance and the Supreme Constitutional Court was soon assailed by Islamists intent on disrupting proceedings, likely inspired by their wariness of the court which dissolved the Islamist dominated lower house of parliament during the summer.
Morsi’s hastily announced referendum for the 15th December on the draft constitution is consummately the gauntlet being laid down, not only for the more obvious factional concerns but also for the democratic future of Egypt. On the condition that the referendum is held fairly and properly, it’s outcome will say a great deal. Whether the secular opposition or Islamist government emerges victorious, the big question is whether the outcome will be respected by the loser. Clashes between opposition and government groups have thus far been limited, which is itself an encouraging sign, but it is hard to say if these spats will dissipate or intensify after the referendum result. If the former, it would be a triumph for the young democratic nation although most commentators predict the latter is more likely.
That comes as something of a surprise to me as although undeniable that Morsi’s attempt at gaining further powers would be intolerable in a more mature democracy, he has shown some conciliatory qualities and the draft constitution is a dramatic improvement on the suspended 1971 version. He hasn’t just steam-rolled over his detractors and neither have they resorted immediately to bloodshed. Organised protests have indeed been aggressive at points but I’m still willing to the believe that there could be a peaceful resolution as long as the respective sides remain patient and aware of the fact that disagreeable politics is a great deal preferable to outright internal conflict. It is rather on a knife’s edge however, and we must reluctantly wait for the referendum, if of course its announcement serves to temporarily calm moods and is allowed to take place.
Egypt, much like Syria, is in my opinion more at the centre of Middle-Eastern stability than Israel at present. Netenyahu’s utterly contemptible response to Palestine’s successful petition to the UN is a perfect example of how utterly irrational some of the involved actors are, and how we should be giving them a very cold shoulder while focusing on less entrenched issues. Egypt and Syria as peaceful, prosperous and democratic nations would be two large symbols of progress in the region. The major difference between the two is that Syria requires action from the rest of the world whilst we can only sit back and let Egypt guide itself through these times. Both are precarious to say the least but, unlike Israel, actionable by the appropriate forces.