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.
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.
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.