CAIRO – The official approval of Egypt’s disputed, Islamist-backed constitution Tuesday held out little hope of stabilizing the country after two years of turmoil and Islamist President Mohammed Morsi may now face a more immediate crisis with the economy falling deeper into distress.
In a clear sign of anxiety over the economy, the turbulence of the past month and expected austerity measures ahead have some Egyptians hoarding dollars for fear the currency is about to take a significant turn for the weaker.
The battle over the constitution left Egypt deeply polarized at a time when the government is increasingly cash-strapped. Supporters of the charter campaigned for it on the grounds that it will lead to stability, improve the grip of Morsi and his allies on state institutions, restore investor confidence and bring back tourists.
“In times of change, politics are the driver of the economy and not the other way around,” said Mourad Aly, a media adviser for the political arm of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, the backbone of Morsi’s presidency and the main group that backed the constitution.
But there are already multiple fights on the horizon.
The U.S. State Department bluntly told Morsi it was now time to make compromises, acknowledging deep concerns over the constitution.
“President Morsi, as the democratically elected leader of Egypt, has a special responsibility to move forward in a way that recognizes the urgent need to bridge divisions, build trust, and broaden support for the political process,” said Patrick Ventrell, acting deputy spokesman. “We hope those Egyptians disappointed by the result will seek more and deeper engagement. “
He said Egypt “needs a strong, inclusive government to meet its many challenges.”
After a spate of resignations of senior aides and advisers during the constitutional crisis, Morsi appeared to have lost another member of his government late Tuesday night when his communications minister posted on his Twitter account that he was resigning.
The minister Hany Mahmoud said he “couldn’t cope with the culture of government work, particular in the current conditions of the country.” The resignation could not be immediately verified because it came so late at night.
Morsi signed a decree Tuesday night that put the new constitution into effect after the election commission announced the official results of the referendum held over the past two weekends. It said the constitution has passed with a 63.8 percent “yes.” Turnout of 32.9 percent of Egypt’s nearly 52 million registered voters was lower than most other elections since the uprising nearly two years ago that ousted authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak
Morsi is expected to call for a new election of parliament’s lawmaking lower house within two months.
In the meantime, the traditionally toothless upper house, the Shura Council, will hold legislative power. But the chamber is overwhelmingly Islamist-dominated so any laws it passes could spark a backlash from the opposition. Many fear a legal crackdown on independent media, highly critical of Islamists.
In a bid to reach out to opposition, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood said he hoped the charter will be a “good omen” for Egyptians.
“Let’s all begin to build the renaissance of our country with free will, good intentions and strong determination, men, women, Muslims and Christians,” Mohammed Badie said on his Twitter account.
But the opposition said the passing of the document was not the end of the political dispute.
Critics fear the constitution will usher in Islamic law in Egypt and restrict personal freedoms.
“This is not a constitution that will last for a long time,” said Khaled Dawoud, a spokesman for the main opposition group, the National Salvation Front, vowing to fight for more freedoms, social and economic rights.
In a sign that the new front for the opposition against Morsi’s policies may be the economy, Dawoud said the Morsi administration was “confused” both on the political and economic fronts.
“We want stability and economic prosperity like everybody else. But we don’t believe that the policies of Morsi and the Brotherhood will lead to more stability,” he said.
The turmoil over the constitution sparked huge protests that turned deadly at times. For a moment, the tension looked like it was spiraling out of control and only added to an already weakened economy.
At the height of the protests, the government called off its talks with the International Monetary Fund over a $4.8 billion loan which Morsi’s government viewed as a way to attract much needed foreign investors, and deal with a high budget deficit.