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The Political Consequences of Mr. Morsi

[Caption: [Caption: "Religion is not just a beard". Image originally posted to Flicker by Gigi Ibrahim]

The week, before demonstrations planned for 30 June demanding President Morsi step down and new elections be held, has been one of unsettling violence. There is an increasing sense of foreboding that the political situation is spinning out of control. It is clearer to many what Egypt is not, (Turkey, Brazil, Tunisia, Eastern Europe) rather than what it is. With millions of Egyptians taking to the streets on 30 June, Egypt has entered into a new period of revolutionary upheaval.

The events of the last two weeks have provided some answers to some of the questions of the past two years. The protests that ousted former President Mubarak were not solely, or even primarily, the work of Islamists hiding under a thin veneer of westernized secular youth. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB), despite a wide membership and impressive internal capacity for mobilization is far from the uncontested representative of a heterogeneous but predominantly Muslim society. Fractured and occasionally clueless as the opposition may be, millions of Egyptians in the large cities and provincial towns, mobilized in the streets. And yes, it still makes sense to call events in Egypt a revolution even if they diverge significantly from the canonical, and largely academic, definitions. Writing in 1913, Lenin explained that a revolutionary crisis occurred when the elite could no longer rule in the old way and the masses no longer desired to live in the old way.

Unfortunately a two and a half hour speech by the president on 26 June outlining his analysis of the situation and the accomplishments of his first year in office only worsened the polarization. Morsi criticized publishers, political figures, and at least one judge by name as well as asserting that the opposition was, in some measure, treasonous. Despite a claim that “the media” broadcast rumors, adversity, and hate speech, he was not, he said, “accusing everyone in the media.” Many Egyptians may, however, have heard a soft echo of the old repressive Nasserist slogan: no voice higher than the voice of the revolution. Morsi indulged in other populist rhetoric, claiming, for example, that lines and shortages at gas stations were due to petty corruption. As with any good elected politician he also blamed most problems on the old regime while occasionally taking credit for its successes. The most notable of the latter is the imposition of a minimum wage of 600 Egyptian pounds in effect since January 2012 (six months before his election). Some parts of the speech, such as the claim that thirty-two families control the Egyptian economy, seem to have no particular relationship to reality. Morsi was right to voice his distress at the “icy relations” between the people and the government. However, his analysis that it was all due to the fear of the Islamic boogieman must have sounded hollow to large numbers of Muslims whose educations owe nothing to the boogieman of Orientalism.

The speech itself may have only deepened an already existing credibility gap between the government and the bulk of the population. Several times in the last weeks, for example, ministers claimed that there was no shortage of gasoline; that diesel, called “solar” in Egypt, was available; and that electricity outages would soon cease. Such routine assurances flew in the face of the daily experience of millions. The MB has frequently betrayed its promises to its political allies and rivals, but these are not really the stuff of mass protest. For example, the voters who handed the MB 235 seats in parliament in the 2011 legislative elections were clearly not troubled that the group had backtracked on its previous promise not to contest the majority of parliamentary seats. It was clear by the time of the presidential run-off a year ago that the country was deeply divided. Yet, there is no reason to believe the vote for former General and Prime Minister Ahmad Shafiq was driven by concern that the MB had promised months earlier not to field a candidate for president. These are legitimate concerns for activists but they have not brought millions of people out into the streets.

If it was not clear enough from the presidential run-off that the country has profoundly divided, it has been far more so since last November when President Morsi issued a constitutional declaration that sought to shield his administration from challenge in the courts. That was when the first massive demonstrations against Morsi began. It was when the earliest slogans calling for an end to the “government of the Guide” (referring to the role of the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Badie) circulated. Since then Morsi himself has increasingly become the target of the opposition. Gone are the jokes about Morsi as the spare tire.

Morsi’s major accomplishments, being the first elected civilian president of Egypt and the man who could claim to have gotten the Armed Forces out of political life, have not been followed with equally rapid economic or political changes. To the contrary, for those with an interest, either intellectual or practical, in politics the last six months have been less than inspiring. Morsi’s government, led by Prime Minister Hisham Qandil, was barely able to pass legislation enabling Islamic bonds (sukuk) due to the opposition of the Azhar whose enhanced role the MB had written into the new constitution. The Azhar and other Islamist opponents claimed the legislation would allow strategic national assets to become the private property of foreigners.

A variety of figures have also attacked the government for its recent decision to create a special investment area in the Canal Zone which, it was alleged, would dilute sovereignty for the benefit of foreign investors. This may have seemed an implausible concern. This is an especially important issue in the Canal Zone cities (Suez, Ismailiya, Port Said) that have been centers of revolt since January 2011. It also evokes powerful fears in a country, where one of the major national assets, the Suez Canal, was owned by foreigners among which the British government until 1956. Educated Egyptians of Morsi’s generation are likely to recall the novelist Gamal al-Ghitani’s 1970s fantasy, Recollection of What Happened in Egypt, in which foreigners threaten to buy up all of Egypt and evict the Egyptians as a cautionary tale if not a likely probability.

That the MB had trouble passing legislation is surprising because it only needed a majority in the rump Shura Council (Upper House) where it holds nearly forty-five percent of the seats in its own name. There is, for now, no lower house because it was dissolved by the Supreme Constitutional Court last year; the new constitution specifically grandfathered the Shura Council as the country’s legislature until new elections are held. 

More immediate domestic problems however are rising unemployment, shortages of gasoline and diesel, electricity outages, and continuing problems with the function of the country’s infrastructure, including public transit and the national rail network. To some degree these are legacies of decades of misdirected investment. They have been exacerbated by the revolution itself; and they have been worsened by the government’s decisions (or more frequently the absence therein). Morsi’s speech at once recognized and tried to deflect a widespread sense of the government’s incapacity. These problems, however, affect all Egyptians and every day. What the government recognizes as a problem with “traffic” translates into increased commute times that affect not only upper-middle class people who drive their own cars but also working class women forced out of paid employment because commuting time makes it impossible to hold paid employment and attend to family expectations.

There might be more widespread willingness to give the government more space, if it had not opened up a yawning credibility gap. Along with the obvious shortages of goods and services, the government has produced more than its quota of excuses and denials. Ministers have proclaimed the electricity problem solved and an end to outages that then become more extensive, although they never seem to occur in the neighborhoods where the ministers themselves live. The government claims there are ample supplies of gasoline, butane, and diesel despite long lines and rising prices on the black market. These were the problems President Morsi, perhaps unwisely, promised to address if not to solve within the first hundred days of his administration.

The inability of the government to restore public safety and the perception of rising levels of violence has also undermined the government’s credibility. There is a widespread belief that muggings, robberies, and armed assaults are more frequent than in the past. There have been something like a dozen authenticated lynchings over the last two years, and in several instances the bodies of supposed criminals who were beaten to death were exposed to public view on the ground or hung from utility poles.  

For the last several years as well, religious violence appears to have increased with several attacks on churches and street battles between Christians and Muslims. Last week religious violence moved in a new direction when a mob, estimated at more than a thousand, attacked a Shi‘i sheikh, Hassan Shehata, in a Cairene suburb and beat him to death along with three of his followers. Shehata, originally an Azhari-trained Egyptian Sunni, had worked in the neighborhood decades earlier before his conversion and he may have had enemies as well as friends and supporters. He evidently fell victim to a heightened antagonism to Shi‘i Islam increasingly evident in some Salafi circles (including some members of the MB) over the last decade. This was heightened by a specific campaign led against Shehata over the past few weeks. Those who led the attack evidently spread rumors that their Shi’i fellow-citizens were engaged in wife-swapping and ritually cursing several of the earliest followers of the prophet Mohamed. Investigations have shown that the police were at the very least criminally negligent as they were evidently stationed less than a hundred meters from the site where the crowd gathered to beat the men and firebomb the house they were in. 

As has been true elsewhere over the last several years the response of Egyptians to this terrible act of violence was far from what the perpetrators may have expected. While there were some attempts to explain it away or defend it, there were widespread condemnations of the killings; including one from the Azhar which has itself been engaged in opposing what it alleges is the danger of Shi‘i infiltration into Egypt. Shehata’s murder was a singular event, but its roots lie in the increased demonization of Shi‘i thought and practice that lie largely within the Salafi movement and which have, over the past several years, engaged in attacks on Sufi shrines as well. 

The police may have been afraid to intervene once the crowd had gathered, but their absence contributes to a sense that Morsi (who issued a condemnation of the murders twenty-four hours after they occurred) says one thing while his supporters act in a very different way. The MB once had a credibility gap with the outside world for saying one thing in Arabic and another in English. Now it has a sharper credibility gap with sections of the Egyptian people to whom its leaders seem to say one thing on stage and whose followers act entirely differently in the streets.

Morsi has not been much more successful in international affairs than domestic ones. The most dramatic and recent problem was the decision by the Ethiopian government to build a dam on the Blue Nile, one of the major tributaries of Egypt’s own Nile. Just as the Mubarak government was taken by surprise when the governments of the Upper Nile basin decided to abrogate the treaty governing present favorable division of the Nile waters (a legacy of British rule), the Morsi government professed surprise at the decision to build a dam. It has long been clear that the countries of central Africa would at some point need access to Nile water but successive Egyptian governments have ignored the problem. Faced with a public relations crisis (since the dam itself will not be filled for year it is not an immediately pressing issue in terms of actual water), the government allowed a public discussion in which the ideas of invading Ethiopia, creating chaos, and other unrealistic possibilities were floated. If members of the opposition who participated in proposing some of these proposals were embarrassed, the entire affair left yet another sense among people that the government itself is insufficiently concerned with acting on the country’s vital interests before as opposed to after they have been critically affected.

After the adoption of the new constitution in December 2012, the MB was on the brink of consolidating its new order. The older and frankly ineffectual politicians of the opposition were in disarray. The emergence of the Tamarod (Revolt) petition campaign at first was a completely marginal enterprise, its leaders not only young and unknown but also largely different from those young activists who were associated with the 2011 demonstrations. 

No doubt there will be many more descriptions and analyses of the Tamarod campaign, but I want to focus on two aspects that I think deserve attention. The first is that the campaign itself emerged in the context of statements from MB members and their associated Freedom and Justice Party taunting the opposition for its inability to organize. They were not alone in this as a significant number of foreign commentators picked up the same theme. The idea of a petition campaign demanding that Morsi step down and early presidential elections be held appeared at first another sign of the opposition’s inability to organize, and their equally great inability to accept the verdict of a democratic vote.

There are, it seems to me, two important but distinct ways that over the last century Egyptians have organized what analysts (especially Americans who have been somewhat obsessive about this) call social movements. One is an exchange model in which political entrepreneurs provide welfare goods and receive political support in return. This has been a staple for how the MB and many of its daughter organizations have been built. It was also a model deployed, with less success, by Egyptian communists in the 1940s. The other model I can only think of as a civic mobilization model and its greatest success in Egypt was the 1918 “tawkilat” campaign of the Wafd in which hundreds thousands of Egyptians, including the illiterate, signed or sealed petitions giving the Wafd their power of attorney to negotiate with the British. These are not peculiar to Egypt. In the United States we are familiar with the exchange model through the history of  integration, especially of immigrant populations into politics through the agency of political machines. We are also familiar with the mobilization model through the civil rights movements in which millions of disenfranchised African American won the vote in the South. 

The petition campaign turned out to be a popular way for people to express opposition to the Morsi government, and as such it served its purpose as an organizing tool. It has provided millions of people with the possibility of peacefully demanding an end to the current situation. People have done this by providing their signatures, and taking part in what has become certainly the largest and widest set of demonstrations in absolute terms in Egyptian history. 

There is considerable discussion among foreign commentators and Egyptians about the responsibility that now devolves on the opposition and much less on the responsibility that devolves on the ruling party. I want to emphasize the role of the ruling party rather than Morsi because most critics of the opposition, for example Walter Meade writing on his website and Leslie Chang writing in The New Yorker, are suggesting that parliamentary elections now and presidential elections in three years are the democratic solution. Thinking back over the past four decades of the history of Western democracies suggests that leaders are not so infrequently forced out of office by demonstrations albeit not directly. The catalyst is usually that the demonstrations foretell a loss at an upcoming election that the leader or his (or her) party find unacceptable. This was certainly the case with Margaret Thatcher whose policies, after a decade in power, had become not only increasingly unpopular but also electorally dangerous.

Clearly just as President Morsi has proven to be unwilling to separate himself from the MB leadership, the legislative delegation of the MB/FJP in either house has so far proven unwilling to separate itself either from him or the organization’s leadership. They have all shown a remarkable party discipline more similar to that of the Communists of the twentieth century than to its Social Democrats. In one sense this is a remarkable achievement, but it carries the cost of electoral and political rigidity and ultimately failure. 

Yet the question remains exactly why, if the opposition is so weak and divided and if the MB/FJP are so committed to democracy, they do not themselves call for new elections. Snap parliamentary elections would have been one way to settle the dispute before now. They would have placed the opposition and Tamarod in an uncomfortable position of either accepting elections they might lose or refusing to participate in the democratic process. And indeed until recently the MB, as well as the White House, and many American commentators have argued in just such a vein. Parliamentary elections should have been held several months ago according to the timetable established in the new constitution, but they have not.

Of course fear of losing elections is a very good reason to postpone them. How is it possible for the MB to postpone the elections, while at the same time casting the blame on the opposition? The opposition, after all, has effectively no legislative power because it is the MB-dominated legislature that writes the necessary laws for implementing elections. The now somewhat tired and almost forgotten story is that the new constitution gave the Supreme Constitutional Court the task of prior review of the election laws and in the process denied them subsequent review. This was to prevent the court from dissolving parliaments as it had done both under Mubarak and in the post-revolutionary period. 

The Shura council passed an election law and it sent to the SCC, which deemed the law unconstitutional for a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with electoral procedures. The Shura council lightly amended the law and then the SCC took the occasion to claim that it could engage in continuing prior review. It then rejected the new law and the Shura council has not since attempted another try. A party eager for elections and relatively certain of its chances could have easily complied with the SCC requirements (this is not the place to go into the specifics of electoral mechanics). By not writing such a law the MB can take advantage of a different section of the new constitution: the one that mandates that the present Shura council is the legislature until whenever new elections are held. For now, the MB can argue that it would like to hold elections but the opposition is threatening to boycott and besides is using its power, in the SCC, to block the necessary legislation. It has neatly deflected the issue away from itself. As a consequence President Morsi and a rump parliament can rule for some indefinite period of time and cloak themselves in the legitimacy of electoral victory that seems so important to the Obama administration and its advisers.

There remains another problem with the new constitution, which I will touch on only briefly in conclusion. It is not clear that a solution to the current political crisis in the streets can be found that will not provoke an equally profound constitutional crisis as long as Morsi remains president. The new constitution was written with several unspoken assumptions that I will also not address at the moment. Under the new constitution, however, if the president and the Lower House represent very different political programs living together will be very difficult. Partly this is because the president and the prime minister have distinct but interlocking responsibilities; this is because it is more difficult to name a new prime minister in the absence of a clear parliamentary majority, but it is also extremely dangerous for the president to dissolve a deadlocked parliament. Whether the current situation will lead to such a conflict is unclear but those who think that there is an easy answer to the political difficulties Egypt faces without Morsi’s resignation are fooling themselves. 

[This article first appeared on Nisr al-Nasr.]

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