Morsi Admits ‘Mistakes’ in Drafting Egypt’s Constitution

Mohammed Asad/Associated Press

Members of the Islamist-dominated upper house of the Egyptian Parliament met on Wednesday.


CAIRO — President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt took responsibility on Wednesday for “mistakes” during the run-up to ratification of the new Constitution and urged Egyptians to appreciate the fierce disagreements about it as a “healthy phenomenon” of their new democracy.

Appealing for unity after the bitter debate over the charter, which was finalized by his Islamist allies over the objections of opposition parties and the Coptic Christian Church, Mr. Morsi pledged in a televised address to respect the one-third of voters who cast ballots against it. “This is their right, because Egypt of the revolution — Egypt’s people and its elected president — can never feel annoyed by the active patriotic opposition,” he said, bobbing his head between the camera and the lectern as he read from a prepared text. “We don’t want to go back to the era of the one opinion and fabricated fake majorities.”

But Mr. Morsi offered no concrete concessions, and he did not acknowledge any specific errors, saying only, “There have been mistakes here and there, and I bear responsibility.” His most tangible outreach to the opposition was an invitation to join a so-called national dialogue that has already begun under his auspices. Hussein Abdel Ghani, a spokesman for the main opposition bloc, dismissed it as “a dialogue with himself” based on “political bribes.”

Still, Mr. Morsi’s attempt at reconciliation, however vague or superficial, represented another notable step in Egypt’s political transition. Here was a recently elected politician seeking to move from the brutally partisan campaign back to the political middle. The speech echoed many American inaugural addresses.

It was a stark contrast to Mr. Morsi’s previous speech, given just 20 days ago, when he sounded far more like his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak. Then, Mr. Morsi attributed a night of deadly violence between his Islamist supporters and their opponents to a conspiracy of foreign agents, old-regime insiders and his political rivals.

“As we all welcome difference in opinion, we all reject violence and breaking the law,” Mr. Morsi said Wednesday, without blaming either side this time.

In Egypt, where previous presidents more often jailed political opponents, even Mr. Morsi’s limited mea culpa appeared to be the first of its kind in decades. The last presidential apology was President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s speech offering his short-lived resignation after the humiliation of losing the 1967 war with Israel, said Khaled Fahmy, a liberal historian at the American University in Cairo. “It is the only thing comparable in its clarity,” Mr. Fahmy said. (Nasser’s theatrical resignation was rejected in a staged plebiscite.)

But at a news conference on Wednesday that was billed as a response to Mr. Morsi, the opposition leaders said they had not even listened to the speech. Mr. Abdel Ghani said the opposition coalition leaders had been in a meeting to draft a statement calling for new protests against the Constitution on the anniversary of the uprising that overthrew Mr. Mubarak on Jan. 25.

In its statement, the coalition complained of “scandalous violations that amounted to fraud” in the referendum that approved the Constitution.

“Even if this Constitution is considered approved legally,” the coalition said, “it lacks moral legitimacy, political legitimacy and popular legitimacy because it lacks national consensus.”

But with the results confirmed, the new order began to take shape. The Islamist-dominated upper house of Parliament met on Wednesday for the first time under provisions of the Constitution that empower it to act as the legislature until the election of a new lower house. The upper house had been almost powerless under the former Constitution, but a court order disbanded the more authoritative lower house last spring while Egypt was still under military rule.

The upper house’s first move was to relocate to the lower house chambers until the new elections, which are expected to be held in two months.

The Supreme Constitutional Court accepted its reconstitution under the new charter, which removed several of the most recently appointed judges. The reduction in its size effectively purged certain judges, including some who were Mubarak loyalists appointed in recent years and one who was an outspoken opponent who was often cast in the role of a villain by the Islamists.

The court’s response to the Constitution had been a matter of some suspense. Mr. Morsi and his Islamist allies had feared that the court would strike down the assembly that was created to draw up the charter, just as it had dissolved the lower house of Parliament, or would seek to review the Constitution. In a pre-emptive strike, Mr. Morsi sought last month to temporarily elevate his own powers over the court, setting off a month of sometimes violent battles between the Islamists and their opponents.

Since then, Mr. Morsi has come under growing international pressure to compromise and resolve the tensions.

After taking a notably evenhanded tone toward Mr. Morsi and his opponents through the stormy days after his power grab, the United States State Department said this week that the onus was on Mr. Morsi to pull Egypt back together. “Democracy requires much more than simple majority rule,” said a department spokesman, Patrick Ventrell. “It requires protecting the rights and building the institutions that make democracy meaningful and durable.

“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,” he added.

Mr. Morsi declared in his speech on Wednesday that Egypt was “moving steadfastly toward democracy and pluralism.” Under the new Constitution, he said, “everyone is equal without any discrimination.”

“No matter what were the hardships of the past period, I see it as the pain of birthing the new Egypt,” Mr. Morsi said. “It is truly the dawn of the new Egypt, which has risen and is now shining.”

Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.

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