The Magazine

The Quality of Morsi

Egypt’s new strongman.

Dec 10, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 13 • By LEE SMITH
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If Morsi’s domestic agenda has largely been stalled, when not marked by conflict, he has distinguished himself on the international front. Where many speculated that an Islamist-run Egypt was likely to get cozy with Iran, Morsi used his trip to Tehran to berate his hosts for supporting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s blood-soaked regime. When Israel embarked on Operation Pillar of Defense, Morsi dispatched his prime minister to Gaza to lend Hamas moral support, but otherwise kept his criticism to a minimum—which couldn’t have been easy for him since Hamas and the Brotherhood are blood relatives.

The White House credited Morsi for “sponsoring” the ceasefire, but that is an overstatement. There was no deal for him to sponsor, merely a return to the status quo, with dead Hamas commanders and a depleted missile arsenal. What’s important is not the part that he played in negotiations, says Wittes, but “the role Morsi played in Egypt. Any Egyptian political actor has a strong incentive to use Israel as a football in Egyptian politics. But Morsi articulated the rationale for pursuing peace in terms of Egyptian national interests.”

The White House is keen that Morsi continue to recognize those interests are best served by staying within the U.S. regional security architecture, and out of any conflict with Israel. The test for Morsi is to what extent he is able to close down Iran’s supply routes to Gaza via smuggling tunnels from Sinai. The jihadist attack in August that killed 16 Egyptian border guards in Sinai convinced the army that national security was at risk. The result is that the Morsi government has proven much more willing to shut down tunnels than the Mubarak regime ever was. Whether Morsi will effectively go head-to-head against the Iranians in Sinai, or cut a quiet deal with them, is another question.

There’s been speculation that with Morsi’s helpful role during the Gaza conflict, the Obama administration may have decided to look the other way when he made his power play at home. It’s true that the White House’s criticism has been less than full-voiced, but the reality is that Morsi’s gambit is straight out of the traditional Arab regime playbook: Use the prestige earned from high-profile diplomatic engagement with Washington to make a move at home.

Perhaps the more relevant factor in Morsi’s timing is the International Monetary Fund loan of $4.8 billion. The IMF has warned that the instability caused by Morsi’s declaration might delay the loan. However, the money is contingent on an economic reform program, including cuts in subsidies, that will be difficult to push through a faction-ridden political arena without a parliament.

According to critics, the newly drafted constitution that is supposed to pave the way to elections is riddled with problems. Some argue that this draft constitution has gone further than the 1971 constitution in its references to sharia law. “I can see why it’s frightening,” says Stacher. “But in the end, Egyptians are likely to interpret law in line with what they’ve done in the past. But because of the focus on sharia, the Islamists have stuffed all this other nonsense into the constitution.”

One article, for instance, makes it illegal to criticize not only religious figures, like the prophet Muhammad, but also any human being. “Does this mean an Egyptian is breaking the law if he criticizes someone’s tie?” says Wittes. The opposition is threatening to boycott the referendum on the constitution, which would make it a further source of contention dividing Egypt.

“The fundamental concern,” says Wittes, “is how to get away from a majoritarian approach to making some important political decisions. The solution then is greater inclusion, dialogue, and compromise. The Brotherhood knows how to make bargains. They cut deals with the regime for years.”

There’s no one else besides Morsi in Egypt’s political landscape who is positioned to mediate between competing political interests and ambitions. There’s no Mandela-type figure of redemptive understanding that can forge consensus between the government and opposition. Rather, there’s only a president whose background, sensibility, and leadership skills all tend toward the authoritarian. The future of Egypt may well depend on whether or not Morsi is capable of re-inventing himself.

Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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