When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran after 14 years in exile on Feb. 1, 1979, he set out to destroy the secular opposition forces, including the Communist Party of Iran, which had been instrumental in bringing down the shah. Khomeini’s declaration of an Islamic government, supported by referendum, saw him rewrite the constitution, close opposition newspapers and ban opposition groups including the National Democratic Front and the Muslim People’s Republican Party. Dissidents who had spent years inside Iran’s notoriously brutal prison system under the shah were incarcerated once again by the new regime. Some returned to their cells to be greeted by their old jailers, who had offered their services to the new regime.
This is what is under way in Egypt. It is the story of most revolutions. The
moderates, who are crucial to winning the support of the masses and many outside
the country, become an impediment to the consolidation of autocratic power.
Liberal democrats, intellectuals, the middle class, secularists and religious
minorities including Coptic Christians were always seen by President Mohamed
Morsi and his Freedom and Justice Party—Egypt’s de facto political wing of the
Muslim Brotherhood—as “useful idiots.” These
forces were essential to building a broad movement to topple the dictatorship of
Hosni Mubarak. They permitted Western journalists to paint the opposition in
their own image. But now they are a hindrance to single-party rule and are being
The first of two days of voting on a new constitution was held Saturday.
According to reports Sunday, the document is being approved. The second round of
voting, next Saturday, includes rural districts that provide much of the
Brotherhood’s base of support, and it is expected to end in the constitution
being ratified by the required 50 percent or more of Egypt’s 51 million voters.
Opposition forces charge that the first round was marred by polling
irregularities including bribery, intimidation, erratic polling hours and
polling officials who instructed voters how to cast ballots. A large number of
the 13,000 polling stations will have had no independent monitors; many judges,
in protest over the drafting process, have refused to oversee the voting.
The referendum masks the real center of power, which is in the hands of the
Muslim Brotherhood. The party has no intention of diluting or giving up that
power. For example, when it appeared that the Supreme Constitutional Court would
dissolve the panel—stacked with party members—that was drafting the new
constitution, the Brotherhood locked the judges out of the court building. Three
dozen members of the panel, including secularists, Coptic Christians, liberals
and journalists, quit in protest. The remaining Islamists, in defiance of the
judges, held an all-night session Nov. 29 and officially approved the 63-page
The draft constitution is filled with disturbingly vague language about
democratic rights, civil liberties, the duties of women and the role of the
press. It gives Islamic religious authorities control over the legislative
process and many aspects of daily and personal life. One reason the constitution
is expected to pass, apart from voting fraud, is because many liberals,
secularists and Copts have walked away in disgust from electoral participation.
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