Tensions remain high in Egypt ahead of a December 15 referendum on a highly-contested draft constitution, authored by an Islamist-dominated assembly. Supporters and opponents of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi clashed in Cairo this week, throwing rocks and firebombs. Meanwhile, three key presidential advisers resigned in protest of sweeping powers the new president has claimed for himself.
Graeme Bannerman is a Middle East Institute scholar and former staffer for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the U.S. State Department Policy Planning Staff. He tells VOA senior correspondent Jeffrey Young that even though it is hard to predict what will happen next in Egypt, much will depend on whether Morsi and his supporters will see themselves as Egyptians first and Islamists second. Below are excerpts from their conversation:
Bannerman: One knows that both sides have tried to avoid a confrontation. No one wants to see violence; no one thinks it’s a good idea. And therefore, the powers that be on both sides are trying to make this a nonphysical confrontation. On the other hand, each wants to demonstrate they have strong support coming up to the referendum on the 15th of December.
It’s less than what’s in the constitution then what it symbolizes. It is important that this constitutional group that wrote it – the liberals, the Christians, and other groups boycotted the final session because they weren’t having a lot of impact on how it was being written - and therefore, it has become more symbolic: Is Egypt going to be a more Islamic state or is it still going to be a more nationalist state. And that’s what the main battle is over the constitution.
Young: Will Egypt ultimately become an Islamist country?
Bannerman: It’s clearly going to be more Islamist. Whether or not that becomes the dominant force in Egypt is up for grabs at this point, and that’s why emotions are so high. Clearly, Egypt differs from all of the other countries in the Arab world in that, yes, it is moving in a more Islamic direction as everyone else is, but it is, first and foremost, Egyptian. And as long as the Islamists can maintain that “we are Egyptians first and Islamists second,” they will be able to do fine. If, on the other hand, it becomes clear that they are Islamist first and Egyptian second, then they will have trouble with the majority of the Egyptian population. Part of the referendum will be on that very issue. Where is the government going?
There’s also some unhappiness with President Morsi on some of the other things that he has done. He did not live up to his commitment on what he was going to accomplish in his first 100 days. He has sort of a tin ear when it comes to minorities. He did not attend the installation of the [Coptic] Pope; that was a bad sign to the Christians. He did not allow the Shi’a to pray at the Hassan Mosque on Ashura. Now, the overwhelming majority of the Egyptians would support him in that decision. That said, though, if you’re going to protect minorities, even the unpopular minorities have to be protected. So there is a lot involved in this vote that people are going to vote on that isn’t just on the constitution.
Young: Wasn’t President Morsi supposed to make a visit to the United States in December?
Bannerman: That has been postponed. Obviously that was not a good idea. The United States is doing its best to stay out of the Egyptian equation. They do not want to become an issue in the campaign. They do not want to give support to either side. Unfortunately, a large percentage of the Egyptians believe that Hillary Clinton, when she visited Morsi just before the November 22nd assumption [by Morsi] of greater authority gave him the green light to do so. I don’t believe that was the case. I’m sure it’s not the case. But, that’s how it was interpreted by people in Egypt.
Listen to Jeffrey Young’s entire interview with Graeme Bannerman (sound file might not display on all devices).
Jeffrey Young is a senior correspondent and news analyst with VOA TV. His experience with the Middle East goes back decades, including years of living in Kuwait, and on-site reporting both during and after the 1991 Gulf War, and following the 2003 Iraq War.