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Mohammed Morsi and the Islamists have the upper hand heading into Saturday’s referendum.
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While one can interpret the postponement of the increases in taxation as a sign of government indecision on how to deal with the economic crisis, it is more likely that Morsi will simply reinstate the tax hikes soon after the constitutional referendum is approved, since he has realized that introducing them, which he knows will be unpopular, at this moment would give a means for the opposition to attract significant further support.
Indeed, it is clear that Morsi’s economic plans, which have included a decree (passed while the November 22 constitutional decree was in force, hence it is beyond legal challenge now) to increase government control over trade unions, are of grave concern to independent labor unions, many of which are concentrated in the industrial city of Mahalla.
Mahalla was the site of the protests that sparked the 2008 general strike in Egypt and has now seen workers throw out the head of the local city council and declare autonomy from the “Ikhwani state,” under the guise of the “Independent Republic of Greater Mahalla” (hat-tip: Ben Jefferies in Cairo for first drawing this development to my attention).
Of course, opposition in Mahalla to Morsi’s 22 November decree and the Brotherhood’s Islamist ideology played a role in this autonomy declaration too, but in this context, one should also note the clear tensions between Tunisia’s labor unions and the Islamist-led government that has plans for a neo-liberal economic approach. In Tunisia, Islamist vigilantes have attacked the headquarters of the country’s main trade union: the UGTT.
Voting in the Constitutional Referendum and the Future: To conclude, while both the Islamist factions and their rivals have rallied significant numbers of people in support of and in opposition to the draft respectively, it should not be inferred that the vote will be split 50-50 in the referendum on Saturday. Rather, it is more likely that the referendum will see a majority vote in favor of the constitution.
The fact that the voting in the presidential race was almost split 50-50 does not indicate that the country is equally divided between Islamists and non-Islamists. In the circumstances immediately leading up to the run-off between Morsi and Ahmed Shafik, it is clear that many Islamists would have believed the election would ultimately be rigged in the latter’s favor, and so would not have turned up to vote.
Despite the call by the main opposition organizations to vote “No” in the referendum (in turn, despite the announcement by the Judges Club that most judges will boycott the referendum, advisers to Morsi claim they have enough judicial officials to oversee the voting), it is clear that this decision has finally come in the circumstances of deep division and indecision within opposition forces as to whether to boycott the referendum or take part in the voting.
The notion of boycotting — now declared by the National Salvation Front to be conditional — illustrates the severe doubts within the opposition as to whether the draft constitution can be turned down.
Since the referendum will likely approve the constitution, there should be new parliamentary elections within two months, which will probably be dominated by Islamist factions as well. Even so, instability with street clashes, rival rallies, and outbreaks of violence will remain a staple of Egypt’s political landscape.
Further, this unrest will not be limited to discontent with Islamist majoritarianism, but will also entail issues such as the tax hikes and Egypt’s potential shift to net importer of natural gas. The superior position of the Islamist factions is unlikely to be overthrown in the near future, but one should not discount a descent into anarchy over the course of ten years or so.
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