The lines are now drawn. Five months ago, when President Mohamed Morsy presented himself to Tahrir as a revolutionary, there was still room to conceive that he might take up the principles for which hundreds of Egyptians had given their lives since 25 January 2011 — bread, freedom and social justice.
When he claimed that he was an Egyptian just like the Egyptians in the square, and that he derived his authority only from the people, there was still room to conceive that Egypt was finally on a starkly different path from that of the prior 60 years.
At that time, back in June, the president was given a remarkable opportunity. Despite the enormous challenges that the country faced and still faces, not least in the economic sphere, he had received a mandate from the people — the first democratic mandate that Egyptians have had the opportunity to deliver in their lifetimes.
With this mandate, he was empowered not merely to appoint a new government, but in an important sense, to forge a new polity — to cultivate, alongside Egyptians, a new relationship between the people and the political realm.
Much to his credit, the president succeeded in largely extricating the military from governance and thus fulfilling one of the central demands of the revolution. This was substantive change, and a stark reversal of course for a government that had, for 60 years, remained led by military men.
One can well understand the frustrations that the president faced in dealing with the courts. In particular, the decision of the Supreme Constitutional Court to dissolve Egypt’s first democratically elected Parliament seemed regressive in the face of the movement toward popular sovereignty.
That the court was populated by appointees from former President Hosni Mubarak’s era hardly gave one confidence that the best interests of revolutionary Egypt motivated the decision.
Further, the failure of the prosecutor general and the judicial system as a whole to deliver what the families of the revolution’s martyrs could regard as justice only heightened these frustrations.
Nevertheless, in spite of the apparent resistance from the courts, and in spite of the skeptics who doubted the Muslim Brotherhood’s capacity to rule, the all-important opportunity to forge a new polity remained, and there was no venue more important to this task than the Constituent Assembly.
In contrast to Egypt’s past constitutions, drafted behind closed doors to contain rather than promote political participation, this was a constitution that might finally have meaning and impact.
But rather than foster a national dialogue about the central issues this constitution would address — the bounds of Egyptian citizenship, for instance — debate was vouchsafed exclusively to the members of the assembly.
Leaks and rumors emerged at times from the deliberations, but there was no sustained effort to engage Egyptians about what they wanted in their constitution.
As a result, in the place of a potentially transformative and indeed revolutionary constitution-drafting project, Egyptians were left as spectators of a process that remained deliberately opaque throughout.
If the president indeed believed he was an Egyptian like all the rest who were in Tahrir on 29 June, when he took his memorable symbolic oath of office, and if he believed the people were the only source of sovereignty in Egypt, one wonders why he failed to spearhead this national dialogue himself. Why not lead Egypt through a constitution-writing process that would transform the country as much as the revolution had — a process that would value the contributions not merely of the “expert” or the “technocrat,” but of the countless Egyptians who had confronted Mubarak in the streets in January and February 2011?
Regrettably, we got the answer to this question this past week. Despite the fact that the revolution seems forever on the president’s lips, the principles of the revolution weigh very little on his decision making. In handing down his constitutional declaration, the president professed that he sought merely to “protect” the revolution.
But of course, in making his rule immune to oversight from all who might challenge and criticize him, he made himself no less a dictator than Mubarak was.
The president insisted that the declaration was only a temporary measure. And we have now discovered why: The Constituent Assembly would press ahead to pass the existing draft constitution, approving article after article with each passing minute.
This draft constitution, written behind closed doors with the input of scarcely the 100 members of the assembly, let alone the millions of Egyptians who made the revolution, would be presented to the nation as a fait accompli. And the president would stake his reputation on the document, declaring that if Egyptians rejected the constitution in the referendum he had set for 15 December, this would constitute a rejection of his rule.
The lines are now drawn. Five months ago, Morsy presented himself to Tahrir as a revolutionary. Now, we know better.
Now we know that he is not committed to the change that millions of Egyptians demanded in the revolution. Now we know that his idea of sovereignty is much like Mubarak’s, and a world away from the truly popular sovereignty of which he spoke on 29 June.
The only way to redeem this constitution-writing process is to vote “no.” The only way to make this constitution-writing process worthy of the revolution that made it possible is to vote “no.”
Paul Sedra is an associate professor of history at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada.
This piece appeared in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition