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Egypt's Draft Constitution Divides Nation


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, who took power last June, is facing a rebellion against his rule. It all started with a set of controversial decrees by the president that put him above the law until a constitution is in place. That move has polarized the country. Judges are on strike and critics say the president is pushing through an illegitimate constitution.

For more we turn to NPR's Cairo bureau chief Leila Fadel. Good morning.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, Egypt took a significant step toward democracy when it did hold those free elections earlier this year. But writing a new constitution is proving incredibly divisive. Where do things stand as of today?

FADEL: Well, at this point the president has set a date for a referendum - a public referendum - on this draft for December 15. But his critics are saying he's trying to push through a constitution that does not have consensus of the state at a time that the nation is in a political crisis and he's making them choose between an authoritarian leader - Mohammed Morsi - or in a constitution that they say actually is slightly authoritarian, still very similar to the 1971 constitution, and the process was dominated by Islamists. So they're saying they're facing a really impossible choice.

MONTAGNE: And this move has this divided the country quite deeply. Why?

FADEL: Well, I think at this point you're seeing the Muslim Brotherhood push the constitution as an identity question, saying this constitution is a constitution of an Islamic state. And so the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and the president himself are coming out and seeing this as a fight for Islam, when the opposition says in fact this is not a fight about identity in a country that's majority Muslim. This is a fight about democracy and the ways to get to democracy. Morsi's decrees, which put basically all the power in his hand, put him above the law, and now pushing the constitution through and saying if the constitution doesn't go through, I keep all these powers, is what's really dividing the country and unifying his opposition in a way that we've never seen in the past.

MONTAGNE: And the president doesn't show any signs of backing down.

FADEL: No. He's digging in his heels, being quite stubborn. Typically when you have a vote in Egypt, it's overseen by judges, and he's seeing this huge full-scale rebellion by judges, and that may further delegitimize the constitutional process. And despite all of this opposition to his decisions, he's saying this is the best way to go forward and I won't back down.

MONTAGNE: And yes, as you just said, every judge in the country is on strike. What are they saying? What are their demands?

FADEL: They're saying that this undermines the very roots of the judicial system in Egypt - that this basically creates an authoritarian regime in Egypt. Despite Morsi saying this is temporary, I respect the judiciary, I respect your independence but this is necessary for the time being, the judges are saying no, you cannot take away our right to oversee, to be the oversight for this country, the check on your power.

He also sent out his vice president yesterday, who is a former judge and a long advocate for the independence of the judiciary who said, listen, first I was a little worried about these decrees but the president has told me he respects the independence of the judiciary and just trust him. But it's not working.

MONTAGNE: Now, there's a referendum on December 15, and if this constitution - or any constitution - doesn't come into being, what then?

FADEL: Well, basically the way that Mohammed Morsi issued his decrees last month is he said I will keep all these powers until a constitution is in place and then I'll divvy up those powers again and these decrees will be null and void. So if the constitution doesn't pass during this referendum on December 15, then Morsi keeps all his powers. And if it does pass, of course it angers his opposition. So the opposition at this point is trying to decide what to do. Do we go out en masse and vote no, or do we boycott this process as a whole?

MONTAGNE: Leila, thanks very much.

FADEL: Thank you so much.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Leila Fadel speaking to us from Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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