No winning issue for Egypt's liberals

Watching the boisterous pro-Morsi rallies in Cairo and Alexandria and Assiut today, it was clear that the Muslim Brotherhood believes it has the votes to pass Egypt's new constitution by an overwhelming margin.

The December 15 referendum can (and will) be framed as a choice between a deeply flawed constitution and an extended period of chaos and political uncertainty.

The former is an abstract concept: It's problematic that the constitution allows military trials for civilians, or codifies discrimination against religious minorities, but the vast majority of Egyptians will never be personally affected by these provisions. The latter, of course, is deeply personal; tens of millions of people are exhausted after nearly two years of turmoil.

For many people, in other words, the default position will be a "yes" vote, and opponents of the constitution will need to convince them otherwise.

But how? The Muslim Brotherhood and the Morsi government have shrewdly laid claim to all sides of the debate. Morsi draped himself in the revolution tonight, saluting the martyrs and arguing that the constitution would finish their work. But just yesterday his prime minister, Hesham Qandil, described a "yes" vote as a vote for stability and a step towards economic growth.

Morsi and Hossam al-Gheriany tonight both described the constitution as a liberal document that protects personal freedoms. Hours earlier, though, tens of thousands of Islamists rallied in support of the constitution, under the banner "legitimacy and shari'a."

Somehow, the constitution is both a revolutionary and a conservative document, a liberal treatise and an implementation of God's will.

How can Egypt's liberals respond? They've already allowed the Brotherhood to frame the larger discussion.

And if they focus on smaller issues, well: Article 10 requires the state to "balance" a woman's family duties and her work, but criticize that and your opponents will portray you as anti-family. Attack article 44, which prohibits "insulting prophets," and you are a blasphemer. Article 197 shields the army budget from parliamentary scrutiny, but it's hard to see this somewhat obscure issue swaying many votes.

Critics have done little over the few months to educate the public about the problems with the draft constitution. So it's hard to see how, in the next two weeks, they convince that same public to vote "no" and usher in many more months of uncertainty.