The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Morsi's year

Seeking to head off the planned June 30 mass protest campaign to push him from the presidency, Mohammmed Morsi delivered a speech last night that, far from being conciliatory, appeared to be an attempt to rally his base and remind voters why they may have cast their ballots for him.  Much of it was dedicated to listing what he considered to be his achievements. Morsi's opponents accuse him of trying to apply a radical agenda dictated by the Muslim Brotherhood. But it was striking that, for an Islamist trying to fire up other Islamists, few of the achievements he mentioned had much to do with Sharia or Islam. Also, for someone who came to power in the aftermath of a revolution, little of what  he mentioned was particularly revolutionary.

Rather, Morsi's achievements were largely a list of his government's additions to Egypt's social welfare programs. It could have come from the front pages of al-Ahram back when Ganzouri was prime minister the first time around. This seemed aimed at that considerable proportion of the population who had responded to the Brothers' implied message in presidential and parliamentary elections: there's nothing fundamentally unsound about the system, the problem is it hemorrhages money through corruption. Because we fear God, we won't do that.

This is a popular message -- the great middle ground of Egyptian politics, which is no doubt why Morsi chose to emphasize it. Beyond it, Egypt is a divided country: some want an Islamic state, others a more secular-leaning one. It is also divided among revolutionaries -- those who want government agencies accountable to the public -- and the considerable number of Egyptians who work for one of these institutions who want to be left to do as they please. 

Morsi 's decision to fall back on social welfare in defining his presidency in his pre-June 30 speech, like much of the other signature decisions of his presidency, is largely an attempt to chart a course through this particular political terrain. To define Egypt's problems as the fault of a high-ranking feloul left over from the Mubarak era avoids tackling any of the thornier questions about the future identity of the Egyptian state, where you can't take a strong side without alienating one group of the other.  Whatever one thinks of the job Morsi has done, any future government of Egypt will face most of the same challenges.

The constitution -- Morsi’s signature “achievement” -- outlines few changes from the Mubarak-era state. Like Mubarak-era criminal law, that has mostly survived intact, it has broad statements affirming civil liberties but specific clauses, like those barring insults to all “persons,” would seem to contradict these affirmations. Other vague language opens the door to allowing religious scholars to shape law, without actually specifying how they will do. In another point of continuity from the Mubarak era, the president remains the most powerful branch of the state but the autonomy of one key institution -- the army -- is maintained.

Beyond the constitution, Morsi has not actually moved to deliver much of what Islamists would consider an Islamist state -- for example, one of his first clashes has been al-Azhar, with the Morsi government pushing a much more pragmatic approach to finance. He has also been loath to tangle with any bureaucracy at all, be it the police or the ministries or the Alexandrian subsidized bread network, so fearful of making new enemies that the Brotherhood is falling back on its old social-charity ways rather than attempt to reform a corrupt and inefficient system. In so far as Islamists have become more aggressive -- ie, the rise in blasphemy cases -- it's largely because they're taking advantage of long-existing laws, without the gatekeeper effect of a prosecutor, firmly controlled by Mubarak, keeping such prosecutions down to a manageable level.

The Morsi presidency can be seen as a series of cascading decisions in which the president, seeking to overcome one challenge to his authority, sets himself up for another. One of his first major moves _ removing the old Mubarak-era prosecutor _ responded to a demand, voiced by many of the revolutionaries who would soon be marching against him, to purge the judiciary and guarantee that those charged with Mubarak-era crimes be found guilty. It instantly ran afoul of the judiciary's desire to manage things itself, and the broader suspicion that the Brothers wanted to subordinate the whole state to themselves. The Brothers' next major move was to fast-track the constitution, largely to avoid court decisions that might derail his administration. In doing so he reached out to the Salafis. In need of money, he looked for a quick Islamic sukuk bond law -- and thus antagonized al-Azhar, leading to the spectacle of secularists standing in solidarity with a theological institution whose basic problem with Morsi was that he wasn't Islamic enough. Meanwhile, as Freedom and Justice party headquarters went up in smoke across the governorates and police did nothing, the Brothers started to feel a keen shortage of street muscle. They began to firm up an alliance with groups like the Gamaa Islamiya, which, along with the perceived softness toward Hamas, has a lot to do with Morsi's failure to win many friends among the army and police, even after promising them their autonomy.

For the winner of the first freely contested presidential election in Egypt's history, Morsi has reached a point where he is quite vulnerable. When a mass movement says it's going to try and remove you, and the army and the police signal they're not going to do much to stop them, it's sensible to worry -- the opposition may swear up and down that they do not want a coup, but it's pretty easy to imagine a series of events where one ends up happening anyway.

Would any other president have been able to do things differently? Ahmed Shafiq certainly would have had army and police backing, and probably also Hamdeen Sabahy. Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh perhaps could have been one of the few figures in Egyptian politics to balance Salafis and secularists. Most of them probably could have avoided Morsi's most polarizing decisions -- his constitutional decree putting himself above the law, swiftly retracted, or his decision to make a Gamaa member the governor of Luxor. Also, the Muslim Brothers' famed internal discipline, very useful in winning elections, is something of a liability once one gets into office, as it tends to frighten other institutions who worry they might be "infiltrated."

But above this, the thing that really brought Morsi to his current state of vulnerability is that he fought off challenges from all sides while presiding over ever-worsensing shortages of fuel and power. And this largely stems from the impact of street unrest on the state revenues of a tourist-dependent economy. Islamists who feel cut out of the political process could probably organize such street unrest just as effectively as liberals. If Morsi does step down, maybe some caretaker government could get an economic rescue package from abroad without the politically costly strings the IMF is attaching. But if not, that future government may soon find itself as beleaguered as Morsi is now, without the boost of having been brought into office by an election.

Steve Negus3 Comments