A Hollow Referendum Win for Morsi

By Leah Farrall

Egypt's probable passing of a new constitution after a drawn-out referendum that concluded this weekend will bring the country's transition period to an ostensible close, but instead of stability, Egypt's political climate has become more polarised.

With violence and lawlessness on the rise, many fear the country might slide into further civil strife.

The political situation deteriorated last month after Mohammed Morsi decreed his presidency above judicial oversight, along with the Islamist-dominated assembly responsible for authoring a new constitution.

The protests that followed, the largest since the presidential elections, were not only against the throwback to Mubarak-style autocracy, but also at the perceived influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in affairs of state and over Morsi.

Muslim Brotherhood members and institutions were directly attacked in several cities, most notably in Alexandria, which had been largely spared protest-related violence for nearly a year.

The violence in Alexandria was not against government agencies or symbols of the Egyptian security state apparatus. Instead it was directed at the Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party as if they were a part of the formal state apparatus. The Muslim Brotherhood's reaction only further inflamed the situation. In Cairo, Brotherhood members and supporters were called to defend the Presidential Palace from protesters, whom they illegally detained, beat and interrogated. Parts of confessions by detained protesters, extracted under duress and with no legal authority, were allegedly cited by Morsi in a speech responding to the protests.

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The impunity with which the Muslim Brotherhood carried out these actions gave the appearance of the organisation being another de facto organ of the unaccountable "deep state" and a tool of repression for Morsi's presidency.

Then, on the eve of the referendum, violence again broke out in Alexandria. This time opponents of Morsi and the constitutional referendum heckled the imam at al-Qaid Ibrahim mosque after he called for worshippers to vote to adopt the constitution.

Clashes soon spilled on to nearby streets as reports spread that Morsi supporters had assaulted his opponents and detained them inside the mosque. Outside, opponents of Morsi and the constitutional referendum laid siege to the mosque and went on a rampage down Alexandria's famed Corniche. Armed with knives, rocks and metal pipes, they seized and burned cars believed to belong to Muslim Brotherhood members.

Meanwhile, sword-wielding rock-throwing salafis and supporters of the broader Islamist coalition, which threw its weight behind Morsi and the constitutional referendum, were photographed charging their way to the scene. More violence was averted only by a large deployment of the Central Security Forces.

While it is tempting to put the most recent clashes down to a reaction against the Brotherhood's behaviour in Cairo, the reality is more complex, and more concerning for Egypt's stability.

Recent events in Alexandria show quite clearly an at-times violent and lawless anti-Morsi, anti-Muslim Brotherhood current has emerged in the city. Although it has no visibly direct ties to the National Salvation Front, it appears to be comprised of supporters of the opposition, although those involved act more like a mob than a legitimate protest movement.

In response to this development, an equally violent and lawless current comprised

of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood-led Islamist Coalition has risen. It too acts more like a mob and lacks discernibly direct ties to any organisation.

What has happened in Alexandriais likely to be a bellwether of what is to come, as events in Cairo last week suggest. There, the opposition group al-Wafd, part of the National Salvation Front, had its headquarters set alight by a mob allegedly from or associated with Salafist group Hazemoun, part of the Islamist coalition.

Violent mob-like behaviour by both sides is unlikely to dissipate following the adoption of the constitution. Despite the often-made claim that the referendum was as much about Morsi's presidency as it was the constitution, it is equally unlikely that the passing of the document will dissipate the targeting of the Muslim Brotherhood and its institutions.

Indeed, with talk from within the Freedom and Justice Party this week of Muslim Brotherhood officials considering arming its youth to defend their offices, a continuation of the organisation behaving like an agent of state seems probable. The scene therefore seems set for more clashes and instability.If mob violence becomes a more regular event as these two factions battle for control of Egypt, the military may be forced to act. In the midst of the past month's events the military issued a warning, stating it would not allow Egypt to fall into a dark tunnel -- a reference to the violent clashes between political factions such as those that took place in Alexandria.

Exactly what the tipping point might be for a more forceful military intervention remains unknown. But if Egypt's streets continue to be filled with mobs of its countrymen fighting and killing each other, Egyptians may stop asking how politicians from all sides failed them in their revolution, and instead more actively call for stability in the form of a return of the military to power. It would be a tragic end to a revolution that began with such hope.

Leah Farrall is a research associate at the University of Sydney's US Studies Centre. She recently returned to Australia after living in Alexandria, Egypt.

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