As opposition members snub President Morsi's offer for talks, an unbridgeable chasm seems to have formed between supporters and opponents of the president – each subscribing to a different reality
With no apparent end to Egypt's constitution crisis, supporters and opponents of President Mohamed Morsi's constitutional declaration and draft national charter are digging their heels in, further entrenching themselvesin their respective camps.
Morsi's Thursday night speech, the first since the outbreak of violence days earlier, was met with firm opposition both on the street and by a political elite allied in opposition umbrella group the National Salvation Front, which announced Friday its refusal to accept the president’s offer for dialogue.
Behind these media statements and calls for dialogue, the ideological chasm is apparent in every line of each side's rhetoric. The two sides speak of two different Egypts, and consequently believe they are actively responding to popular sentiment.
Mohamed Abu-Shaqra, a political and civil-society advocate and member of the Constitution Party in Alexandria, says: "The president didn't offer any incentives for dialogue. Rather he emphasised the use of haphazard power and referred to opposition protesters across the country as a minority, as well as pointing to a third party. If he wants to start a healthy dialogue at such a critical moment, you need to show an understanding of the opposition's demands."
Understanding is indeed a crucial part of the massive divide between those who support Morsi’s constitutional declaration and the draft constitution and those who believe it to be a power grab and a ploy to push through a highly unrepresentative national charter.
Tarik Fahim, spokesperson of the Salafist Nour Party in Alexandria firmly believes in a different reality: "We are all the people. These protests are an attempt by an opposition to kill the constitutional project. If they really want to resolve the crisis at hand, they would come and sit with us without preconditions."
He refers to the opposition as people with neither principles nor morals. He steers every question on the constitution and the revolution towards a defence of Islamic law, which he claims will bring peace and stability back to Egypt.
"No Muslim would say no to Sharia (Islamic Law)," arguing that the average Egyptian is not ready for a full implementation of Sharia due to "widespread disease and ignorance. They don't know right from wrong; they don't know Sharia."
The constitution is a step, he believes, that would allow future implementation of what he sees as God's law.
Brotherhood talk is considerably less fiery and religiously loaded, stressing instead recent electoral victories – both parliamentary and presidential – and participation in last year's 18-day uprising as proof of their popular and revolutionary legitimacy.
Ali Abdel-Fatah, general director of the Alexandria branch of Egypt's Doctors' Syndicate and a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party, believes the opposition to be a minority whipped onwards by remnants of the former regime.
In Alexandria, where following the 22 November Constitutional Declaration several of the ruling party's offices were burnt and raided, Revolutionary Socialist Mahienour El-Masry speaks of a turning point following parliamentary elections with regard to how Alexandrians see the Muslim Brotherhood.
"Having observed the Islamists and Salafists in parliament, we can note a vast change in popular sentiment that was apparent during presidential elections," El-Masry says, pointing to growing numbers on the street andthe appearance of new protest venues “in middle- and upper-class neighbourhoods such as Victoria in uptown Alexandria and Kafr Abdu: people who may not have voted in the past or may be supporters of the former regime but who feel a threat to their personal freedoms."
She and Abu-Shaqra both agree that the participation of parties and politicians deemed "remnants" of the former regime within the opposition's ranksis not ideal but they point to the pressing and critical nature of the current political juncture.
El-Masry identifies the burning of the FJP headquarters in Alexandria as proof that popular sentiment had turned against the Brotherhood: "People feel they've betrayed the revolution. The general feeling on the street is that nothing has changed. Having fooled voters with words on Sharia and religion, they realise that the Brotherhood, by grabbing dictatorial authorities, is acting like the NDP [the defunct ruling party of ousted president Hosni Mubarak]."
Abdel-Fatah, who denies the existence of Brotherhood militias, argues that violence in areas adjacent to Tahrir Square following the Constitutional Declaration and the burning of FJP offices in Alexandria is proof of an opposition attempting to sow discord and chaos.
"Political differences are essential, but should be expressed peacefully not violently," he said. "Those in opposition should let the people decide through the referendum.”
With regard to Wednesday's violence, Abdel-Fatah's response is less lucid: "Calling for the storming of the palace and the imposition of a presidential council is undemocratic. Why throw rocks at the presidential car? This is an assault on the choice of the people."
"We know the revolutionaries, and I can tell you that there are remnants of the former regime within the ranks of the opposition, and they are the reason for all this violence," says Abdel-Fatah, arguing that members of the ousted Mubarak regime were working to prevent passage of the draft constitution to avert political isolation.
"If it weren't for President Morsi's Constitutional Declaration, the High Constitutional Court would have brought back military rule," he claims, stressing that members of the former regime were working through the courts and in other ways to stifle the president and his attempts to achieve outstanding demands of the revolution.
"When people took to the streets in commemoration of the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes and called for the rights of the martyrs, we removed the prosecutor-general who stood in the way of prosecuting the perpetrators. We were responding to essential revolutionary demands," Abdel-Fatah says.
Abu-Shaqra argues this statement is a half-truth: "If the president really wanted to change the prosecutor-general, which is in fact a revolutionary demand, he could have charged the Supreme Judicial Council to do so rather than take extra-legal measures thereby threatening the revolution and its principles, among which are the rule of law and an independent judiciary."
The Brotherhood, he believes, is acting in this manner because it is fundamentally reformist and not transformist or revolutionary.
“The struggle over the referendum and the Constitutional Declaration is a primary test. If we don't pass this test, it is a worrying sign; I'm not saying hopeless, but definitely worrying. Revolutions are started by a minority, but the results must be understood by the majority. Thus far, there have been no dramatic changes in Egypt's political culture and institutions."
It is this reformist mindset, however, that Abdel-Fatah believes will ensure the ratification of the constitution (by at least 85 per cent) and the group’s success in the end.
“The Egyptian people want stability and gradual changes – not revolutionary, coup-like ones," he states. "They want stable institutions, and they are happy that there is an elected president. Now we want to destroy things all over again? In the end, for the average Egyptian, the content of the constitution isn’t important. Rather, it's stability.”