Egypt Constitution Vote: US Must Confront Morsi Before Violence Escalates

Egypt is at a crossroads and the Obama administration is still uncertain how best to respond.

It cannot simply ignore the events in Egypt, nor can it easily condemn one side and hope the other comes out at the end of this crisis on top. Calls for calm have invited criticism as being the usual platitudes. Rather than try to get involved or remain silent, the administration should tell Morsi in private that he must truly negotiate with the opposition, and it must publicly state its opposition to the imposition of martial law.

Egypt is divided. Protests have made the country nearly ungovernable. On the one hand, protesters opposed to president Mohammed Morsi have not been mollified after he annulled his (un)constitutional decrees, as he still demands a nationwide vote on a constitution slated for December 15. The public was given almost no time to view the draft and almost all non-Islamists withdrew from the constituent assembly, tasked with creating the constitution. On the other hand, supporters of the president believe he is trying to maneuver past Mubarak-era obstructionists, especially in the judiciary, while the opposition has done its best to stop many needed reforms through lawsuits and continual protest.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the organization from which Morsi hails, has broken nearly every political promise it has ever made. Furthermore, the Muslim Brotherhood has refused to acknowledge the legitimate concerns of the opposition, while some have gone so far as to attack, and even torture, protesters. The opposition has hardly been without its own indiscretions however, with a round of attacks against offices of the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party. New protests have been called for by both sides on Tuesday, just ahead of the December 15 date for a vote on the constitution, and nobody expects that will go off without violence.

Both sides are fearful of foreign hands at play in Egypt and that constant refrain can be heard in the rhetoric used. The U.S., a country with a long history of public and private intervention in the Middle East and in Egypt, cannot afford to publicly insert itself into a role as peace broker. However, the administration should make clear to Morsi that a true dialogue with the opposition, still somewhat united under the banner of the National Salvation Front, is the only way out of this crisis. The group has issued three demands: an annulment of Morsi’s November decrees (which he later did), the referendum on the constitution to be cancelled, and a new constituent assembly to be formed. The Obama administration should urge Morsi to consider postponing the referendum and hold private talks with him in order to find a way out of the crisis.

On the issue of martial law, the U.S. should be clear that it opposes such a move. For 30 years, Egyptians lived under the infamous Emergency Laws, and if one thing could unite a majority of Egyptians against Morsi and destroy his legitimacy completely, it is his talk of calling for martial law. Obama needs to explain to Morsi clearly that it his administration would publicly protest any move in this direction.

Further, complicating the equation is that the allegiances of the Egyptian military are unclear, as most of the military’s leaders were purged over the summer. However, even when it was under a clear hierarchy, led by General Mohammed Tantawi, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces made a mess of the transition to civilian rule. Any sort of repeat of this episode, or an imposition of Morsi’s continued rule by force, will only invite disaster.

With dueling protests predicted for Tuesday, Egypt’s crisis is certain to come to a head either then or on the 15th. With that in mind, the Obama administration should urge Morsi to consider the role of compromise and dialogue, rather than try to force a referendum on the public before it is ready.