Blame Morsy

How to wreck a country in 369 days.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Let’s make this abundantly clear: No one should be pleased with the division and bloodshed playing out in the streets of Cairo right now, particularly as military repression escalates. But let’s also make this abundantly clear: One man bears the ultimate responsibility for the crisis of leadership — Mohamed Morsy.

With Morsy now arbitrarily detained by the military following his July 3 ouster and Egyptian security forces indulging in violent, reckless repression, the former Egyptian president and his Muslim Brotherhood movement have legitimate grievances regarding their unjustifiable treatment. But let’s not forget how we got to this grim point. On the night of June 30, in the face of unprecedented, nationwide mass mobilization and protest, Morsy was politically wounded, his legitimacy undermined, his ability to govern Egypt irreparably damaged. In response to the bottom-up, grassroots campaign that brought millions out into the streets, critical sectors of the state bureaucracy openly abandoned the president, leaving him with an illusory and nominal grip on power. He faced a country dangerously polarized, its social fabric fraying. At that moment, Egypt had fleetingly few options for avoiding the grim possibility of civil strife — and all of them resided with Morsy.

Despite inheriting intractable political, economic, and social problems, when Morsy ascended to power on June 30, 2012, he had choices — and he chose factional gain, zero-sum politics, and populist demagoguery. In a system without functioning checks and balances, those choices generated increasing levels of polarization, destroying trust and crippling the state. These decisions were a reflection of his hostility to criticism and his and the Muslim Brotherhood’s denigration of the opposition’s role in Egyptian society. In the period prior to this year’s June 30 mass protests on the first anniversary of Morsy’s swearing-in, when concessions and compromise might have found an orderly way out for Egypt, Morsy instead grudgingly offered airy promises and hollow gestures.

The fateful, misguided decisions made throughout his tenure and in the run-up and aftermath of the June 30 protests have now put Egypt on the cusp of civil strife and violent conflict. An intransigent, isolated president chose to ignore reality and set the country on the course for an undeniably unfortunate military intervention into civilian politics. While Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood will undoubtedly now assume their more familiar role as victims, significantly aided by the brutality and stupidity of a repressive Egyptian security sector, the primary responsibility for Morsy’s ouster and Egypt’s perilous state resides with the deposed president and his Brothers. None of this was inevitable.

This is not to suggest that the Brotherhood should now be ostracized, persecuted, or forced underground. The Muslim Brotherhood is an organic and deeply rooted religious, social, and political movement with a robust and resilient base. It must be a part of Egypt’s future. But its part in Egypt’s recent past has been an unmitigated disaster.

Morsy’s fatal final decisions confirmed his insular, factional worldview, which prioritized the Muslim Brotherhood before the nation. Simply put, he failed to comprehend that his secret society had no monopoly on Egypt and that their electoral victories were not an unlimited mandate. The Muslim Brotherhood believed that the series of elections throughout 2011 and 2012, which represented in many ways the last elections of Hosni Mubarak’s era, bespoke something essential about Egyptian society and the Brotherhood’s place within it.

These traits — bullheadedness, insularity, and paranoia — were on vivid display as Egypt careened toward June 30, but they had manifested themselves repeatedly over the course of the Brotherhood’s short, unhappy time in power.

Morsy’s 369 days in power were typified by a lack of reform, which alienated activists and reformists; a lack of reconciliation, which blocked any potential outreach to members of the former regime; and narrow, monopolistic governance, which alienated all political forces — including his erstwhile Islamist allies, particularly the al-Nour Party, which abandoned Morsy during his final hours. This reckless approach to power spurred alienation, paralyzed governance, and resulted in repression and discontent — and opposition grew.

The bill of particulars is damning and dates back to the immediate post-Mubarak period, when the Brotherhood chose to pursue a formalistic procedural transition that saw elections alone as democracy, while ignoring substantive reform of a failing system. The narrow window for confronting Mubarak’s police state and crony capitalism would have required a modicum of solidarity among the forces that propelled the uprising against Mubarak. But in the first of a series of betrayals, the Muslim Brotherhood set out on a course to retool Mubarak’s authoritarian state and co-opt its tools of repression, with the Brotherhood itself in the helm.

Not only did the Muslim Brotherhood help craft and endorse the interim military ruler’s flawed transitional road map, which was filled with gaps and omissions, but the Brotherhood immediately set about stigmatizing its opponents on the basis of crude religious and sectarian demagoguery. Reformist and activist forces who sought to challenge the emerging political order were tarred and treated as obstacles in the Brotherhood’s pursuit of factional gain. Hence was set in motion a substance-free transition whose sole defining feature was a grueling series of elections.

Despite this lack of trust, many reformists chose to support Morsy in his campaign against Ahmed Shafiq, the former Mubarak regime stalwart, for fear of immediate authoritarian relapse. These grudging supporters were coaxed by a series of promises regarding inclusive governance, including pledges to select a diverse group of advisors and a diverse group for the country’s constitutional drafting body. This gamesmanship proved decisive in Morsy’s narrow electoral victory.

Those guarantees, consecrated in a formal document almost a year ago, were almost uniformly unfulfilled, setting the stage for a turbulent period of creeping authoritarianism, gross mismanagement, and deepening polarization. With limited checks and balances, Morsy sought to neuter the judiciary while beginning a concerted, and ultimately futile, effort at institutional capture of various state institutions. Most damning in this vein were the efforts to come to a modus vivendi with the Brotherhood’s former torturers in the unreconstructed police, whose abusive, unaccountable practices continued. All the while, Morsy and his government were praising the police force and giving its members raises and promotions. It is disturbingly ironic that this police force is now engaged in an effort to repress the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters into acquiescence.

Legislatively, Morsy’s government pushed forward restrictive legislation on various fronts, including laws impeding independent labor organizing and interfering in the operation of nongovernmental organizations. His government did little to curtail a spike in prosecutions of speech crimes, including blasphemy cases and those related to insulting the presidency. Further, the criminal justice system was corrupted and used as a political tool in the wake of the extralegal appointment of a handpicked prosecutor general.

That appointment was accomplished through Morsy’s dictatorial November 2012 constitutional declaration that temporarily immunized him from any judicial oversight and set the stage for the contentious adoption of a slipshod document as the country’s foundational text. For many, this was the final act in institutionalizing Egypt’s political crisis. The acute polarization made even basic governance impossible and furthered the country’s economic crisis — with rapidly rising unemployment helping to activate opposition within previously quiescent sectors of society. Opposition to Morsy was no longer geographically limited or defined by class; instead it was broadly dispersed geographically, representing a wide spectrum of Egyptian society, including the urban poor and various rural constituencies.

Finally, this mushrooming discontent took to the streets in protests that exceeded in size and scope of those that toppled Mubarak in January and February 2011. The warning signs were there for all to see, except perhaps for the blithe, hubristic leaders of the Brotherhood.

While the Tamarod ("Rebel") campaign was an extraordinary feat of creativity and organization, its success was predicated primarily on the outrage and frustration building throughout Egyptian society at the increasingly authoritarian, monopolistic, and incompetent administration of Morsy. With no immediate constitutional mechanism for impeachment, millions took to the streets calling for him to go, some hoping that public pressure would force him to resign, others pushing for a military intervention.

With this resounding show of no confidence and the fragile security situation in the country on June 30, the possibility of violence was high. But at that pivotal juncture, Morsy still had options. He, and he alone, could have dialed down the rhetoric and avoided the bloodshed that was to come. Instead, his reckless nonchalance ensured that compromise solutions would not be forthcoming. So Egypt was left with the inevitable: a military ouster and a spiraling street war.

An honorable exit for Morsy would have been a recognition of reality. A crippled executive with a tenuous grip on authority who could not govern effectively — even at the peak of his popularity — was no longer in a position to fulfill his role. A negotiated safe exit would have also preserved the Muslim Brotherhood’s political gains and ensured its participation in the design of the transitional stage and upcoming elections. Such an exit would have also reversed its disastrous decision to renege on previous pledges and contest the presidential election, thereby relieving the organization of the enormous strain of governing Egypt during this tumultuous period.

Such a decision would have required Morsy to undertake a thorough assessment of his errors and an objective appraisal of the country’s current dynamics. As difficult as such steps would have been, they were Egypt’s only way out. Instead, the country has chosen one poison over the other.

But in the end, no functional political order can emerge, let alone a democratic transition, without the free, fair, and full participation by the Muslim Brotherhood. With Morsy now incommunicado and presumably filled with rightful indignation at his fate, he can still help bring Egypt back from the brink. To do so, however, will require him to be a real leader and make a painful concession — placing his country’s future first.

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