Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Morsi Gets a Pass

by Steven A. Cook
August 29, 2012

Islam Afifi, editor-in-chief of the Al-Dostour opposition newspaper, is seen in his office in Cairo (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters).


It has certainly been an interesting few weeks in Egypt.  Just as I was taking off for vacation, President Mohammed Morsi had consolidated his power by ousting the military’s senior command, firing the chief of General Intelligence, and canceling the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ June 17 constitutional decree that gutted the powers of the presidency in defense and national security policy.  It is important to note that bringing the military to heel is a positive development because it helps create an environment more conducive to the emergence of democratic politics.  At the same time, however, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood—or more precisely, the Freedom and Justice Party—have made a number of questionable moves that raise concerns about the Brothers’ commitment to democratic change.

Despite seeking to shut down a television station, throwing the editor of the daily al Dostour in the dock for insulting the president (he was subsequently released when Morsi changed the law), reaffirming the state’s ownership of a variety of media outlets, and assuming legislative authority, Morsi and his colleagues have largely gotten a pass.  To be sure, former Bush (41), Clinton, and Obama Middle East hand, Dennis Ross, published a critical op-ed in the Washington Post  and his colleague, Eric Trager, did the same in the Wall Street Journal, but these were the exception rather than the rule.  The Post’s editorial page—which has made democratic change in Egypt a matter of principle over the last decade—mildly chided President Morsi, stating that the new Egyptian president “must learn to live with a certain amount of criticism.”Before going any further, let me stipulate that I agree with my colleague and pal, Marc Lynch, who has pointed out that because Egypt is so polarized whatever Morsi, the FJP, and the Brothers do, someone is going to see it as sinister.  Still, while the Brothers and the Salafist al Nour party have assailed some of Egypt’s alleged liberals for backing the SCAF as a bulwark against the Islamists instead of supporting democracy, the Islamists and their followers have done something similar when they make excuses for Morsi and the Brothers’ actions that seem to be more interested in institutionalizing their power than upholding the principles of the revolution.

So given all the hopes and expectations Egyptians have about building a just and democratic order, why do Morsi and the Brothers get away with it? There are three reasons why the Brotherhood’s illiberal inclinations are met with a collective shrug instead of the outrage that occurred when the now-defunct National Democratic Party (NDP) put pressure on its opponents and engaged in all kinds of non-democratic chicanery under the guise of reform:

First, some observers and partisans have argued that it is still early, that Morsi has only been in power for two months, and that upon assuming office he was confronted with powerful forces opposed to his presidency.  In an-ends-justify-the-means type of argument, if Morsi needs to resort to legal, but non-democratic measures to secure his rule and thus the prospects for democracy, so be it. When al Dostour’s Islam Afifi was hauled in by police for offending the president, social and traditional media outlets lit up with commentary. A fair number of people who no doubt consider themselves supporters of democracy argued that this action was within the framework of the law. The problem with this argument is, of course, we do not know that Morsi and his colleagues intend to build a democratic system.  More importantly, the way to support democracy is to support democracy.  Inherently anti-democratic acts like prosecuting editors and shutting down televisions stations—no matter how distasteful—simply do not advance the cause of freedom.

Second, President Morsi and the Brothers have credibility.  I remember five or six years ago when Egypt was first dealing with the avian flu outbreak. I was having dinner with my friend Hatem and his wife.  They weren’t supporters of the Brotherhood, but they shared the generally conservative values of Egypt’s vast center. Hatem had the bare outlines of a zabeeba—a callous on the forehead from prostrating fervently during prayer—and his wife wore a headscarf.  They told me that when the government announced that there was no danger in eating fowl, they continued to avoid it.  Yet when they saw members of the Muslim Brotherhood on television enjoying grilled chicken, Hatem and his wife knew that they could once again eat poultry safely.  That kind of credibility is political gold and it has given Morsi political leeway during his early days in power.

Third, primarily Western analysts and a good chunk of the American foreign policy establishment have come to believe that the Brothers can be a genuine force for progressive political change.  This conclusion is based on an alleged evolution of the Brotherhood that is reflected in its discourse about reform and democratic change. Observers also point to the Brothers’ past performance as parliamentarians when they sought to hold corrupt governments under Mubarak accountable. If neither of these arguments is convincing, it may not matter so the theory goes because circumstances will force the Brothers to become democrats despite themselves.  Left without the means of coercion, the only resource the Brothers have is their popularity and as a result, they will go back to the ballot box again and again in order to outmaneuver their political opponents.  Eventually the principles and practice of democracy will become institutionalized.

As I have written before, much of this is based on hunches, wishful thinking, or historical analogies that are interesting but are hardly predictive of the Brotherhood’s political trajectory.  Still, if the reception that the Freedom and Justice Party received in Washington last March is any indication, these arguments hold sway and insulate Morsi and the Brotherhood from the widespread denunciation they deserve when they pursue non-democratic policies.

It is too early to draw any firm conclusions about the Brothers in Egypt, but it certainly seems that their first inclination is to advance their agenda by any means necessary while expressing fealty to the revolutionary promise of Tahrir Square.  It has become a cliché, but what the Brothers do is more important than what they say.  After all, doesn’t anyone remember “New Thinking and Priorities”?  The NDP was also adept at the language of political change and reform, but hardly anyone believed it.  Of course, the FJP is not the old ruling party, but in order to ensure that it does not become some variant of the NDP, liberal-minded Egyptians and foreigners (yes, foreigners) need to speak up loudly when the Brothers do illiberal things.





Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Raja M. Ali Saleem

    While Morsi and Brotherhood anti-domecratic moves should be criticized by foreigners, I think we should not waste our precious time on that. There are enough Dennis Rosses and Wall Street Journals which are going to criticize Morsi and MB whatever they do because they are more concerned about their own perceived Israel’s interests than Egypt’s interests.

    Moreover, as these people are so partisan and Egyptian people know what they represent, so their criticism will actually help Morsi and MB, which is not our intention. Its strange that people who in the past 30 years asked us not to push Mubarak even to register oppositiion parties, want to hold Morsi to the standards of advanced democracies after only two months.

    What should be our main concern is to help revive civil society/opposition parties in Egypt. Meanwhile, Morsi shouldnot be pushed to the corner. The good that they do should be appreciated. Just because they are Islamist, they should not be held to higher standards. We certainly don’t want Egypt to become another Iran.

  • Posted by Balasticman

    It is going to be extremely difficult for the US to know if, when and how to call out anti-democratic acts by the Islamists. Distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate actions presupposes the US knows what is going on at a constant, micro level in Egypt, and can avoid be misled either by regime apologists or corrupted or misinformed opponents. It also means the United States will have the spine to call out the obvious misdeeds in the face of the inevitable jingoistic backlash, and without balancing seemingly mundane matters like changes in school curricula or a church permitting process, with macro interests such as the peace treaty with Israel or free navigation through the Suez Canal.

    Be that as it may, foreigners — and specifically the United States Administration — must stay involved in Egypt, and must guide the country politically, economically and socially in a modern direction. And in doing so, the United States needs to be attentive to local sensibilities, but always consistent in its messages and actions. Reformists in Egypt cannot do it alone, and simply hoping beyond hope that the Islamists will prove to be pro-American modernists is both naive and dangerous.

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