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The Quality of Morsi

Egypt’s new strongman.

Dec 10, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 13 • By LEE SMITH
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Egypt’s political crisis seems to be testing the conviction, long held in certain Western circles, that actually having to govern a modern nation-state will moderate Islamists. The counterargument is that executive power will merely give free rein to tyranny, justified by rigid doctrine and implemented by torture, prison, and executions. It may be some time before that question is answered in Egypt. Mohamed Morsi, its new Muslim Brotherhood president, is still figuring out how to ride a sphinx.

An Anti-Morsi Protester


Buffeted by the various furies of a political culture that were unleashed with the fall of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, Morsi has been hemmed in by opposition forces as well as a judiciary composed largely of Mubarak-era appointees. The lower house of parliament was dissolved, as the upper house may soon be along with the assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution. For Morsi, the most pressing question is not how to rescue the Egyptian economy, or how to protect the country from dangerous regional dynamics that might drag it to war with Israel, or, more abstractly, how an Islamist is to rule. The question rather is simply, how does he—how does anyone—govern Egypt?

Not surprisingly, Morsi is inclined toward the dictatorial. Late in November, he assumed a host of extraordinary powers and thereby sent thousands of protesters to the street who warned that the purpose of the revolution was not to replace Mubarak with another despot. Morsi and his aides say the president will relinquish the privileges he arrogated to himself—for instance, that his declarations, laws, and decrees are final and binding—when (or if) the constitution drafted at the end of last week is passed in a referendum to be held this month. With a new constitution, Egypt can then move to elect a new lower house of parliament to replace the one the supreme constitutional court dissolved in June.

“Anyone else in Morsi’s position might have done more or less the same thing,” says Joshua Stacher, a professor at Kent State who specializes in the Muslim Brotherhood and has met with Morsi frequently in the past. “It was an incredibly partisan move, and the Brotherhood has said a lot of stupid things this week. But they have a point when they say that we can’t keep having elections until the Brotherhood loses.”

Tamara Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and a former deputy assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs in the Obama State Department, agrees—up to a point. “Morsi’s frustration with the transitional process is understandable,” says Wittes. “There are real problems in the judiciary and fecklessness in the opposition. But none of that is to say this is necessary or wise. Morsi’s cure is far worse than the disease. He has increased polarization. He came to office promising that he would be the president for all Egyptians and he has rejected that role in favor of a partisan role.”

Morsi’s “constitutional declaration” managed to unite opposition blocs that despise each other—the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square who brought down Mubarak in February 2011, and the remnants, or feloul, of the regime that they toppled.

Morsi had perhaps hoped that parts of his declaration would get the revolutionaries off his back. For instance, he dismissed the current prosecutor general, a Mubarak appointee who, the revolutionaries believe, failed to prosecute Mubarak allies responsible for violence against the revolutionaries. Another article promised to retry those who targeted the revolutionaries back in 2011. However, the revolutionaries were not appeased and once again took to Tahrir, which over the last 22 months has become Cairo’s premier political forum.

“The opposition can’t beat the Brotherhood in elections because they don’t have the networks that the Brotherhood has,” says Stacher. “Moreover, [the Brotherhood has] an electoral mandate. The elections were procedurally clean, and there was a large turnout. People bought into it.”

The fact that protesters are willing to take to the streets to air their grievances is proof to many, in Egypt and abroad, that the democratic revolution that deposed Mubarak won’t be reversed. And yet for every thousand in Tahrir, there are millions of Egyptians who want the sort of stability that will allow them to put food on the table. This silent majority is angry at the protesters and becoming increasingly frustrated with a government that can’t keep the streets clear.

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