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Should Egyptians Believe Morsi?

[Demanding [Demanding "life" and "freedom" in anti-Morsi protest, Cairo, Egypt. Image originally posted on Flicker by Gigi Ibrahim]

On 26 June, President Morsi gave a long-winded two and half hour speech that could be described as a “state of the nation” speech. It was labeled as an “accounting” of his accomplishments in the first year since his election. There was a hope that he would respond to the demands put forth by the Tamarod (“Rebellion”) Campaign, which has collected over fifteen million signatures since April, from Egyptians no-confidencing their president. The campaign is planning massive nationwide demonstrations on 30 June, the first anniversary of Morsi’s presidency. The speech, however, took a different path. Morsi began by outlining the challenges that Egypt is currently facing, and the mistakes that he has personally made as leader of the current government. Initially this acceptance of responsibility appeared to be a refreshing turn of events. But he then quickly proceeded to place the blame for Egypt’s current political and economic problems on all the traditional culprits: the media, the judiciary, the secular opposition, and the former Mubarak regime, and its supporters. More like an authoritarian ruler, he heaped praise upon his newfound allies in the Ministry of Interior and the vast military institution. These security services–which have not undergone any serious reform–still behave without regard for the rule of law. However, Morsi reminded his audience several times that he is indeed the President of Egypt and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. Was this a subtle threat? It is sad that the first civilian elected president has to find his allies in the military and police and not in the civilian institutions that traditionally support and promote a democratic system.

In a culture that places high value on oratory, unfortunately Morsi’s speech left much to be desired. His attempts at light-hearted humor rallied only his handpicked audience of Islamists, who responded enthusiastically to his rhetorical questions. Morsi mentioned several names in a derogatory manner and made accusations that a particular judge was corrupt and had falsified the results in Mubarak’s 2005 election. He also attacked specific owners of independent satellite television stations, whose sources of funding his regime is currently investigating. Meanwhile, media outlets that support him are not subjected to similar investigations. He even went so far as to threaten those in opposition to him with “court cases” that would put them in their place. Ignoring the dignity of the office of the president, Morsi came off as a back alley mudslinger, hurling one insult out after another.

Morsi spent several minutes attacking his opponent in the 2012 presidential race Ahmed Shafiq. Morsi appears to find him threatening, and demanded that Shafiq return to Egypt to face the judicial process that, at the behest of Morsi’s government, is currently investigating Shafiq’s business dealings. Morsi said very clearly that Shafiq and his feloul (“remnants” of the Mubarak regime) allies are “the fingers” behind the current unrest and the Tamarod Campaign--a clear insult to the millions of petition signatories calling for early elections. Never mind the utter failure of this government to provide the basic needs of its citizens: clean water, electricity, gasoline, decent work, respect for human rights, rule of law, and bread (which in Egyptian Arabic is called ‘eish or “life”).

Morsi and his Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) have, over the last year, lost the Egyptian people’s trust in his administration. They had an opportunity early on to create a consensus and build upon the goodwill that many had initially given them. Many Egyptians had hopes that a group of people who had suffered so much under Mubarak’s draconian rule would be open to working with all political entities, in order to bring Egypt out of an especially difficult economic quagmire. Instead, Morsi and his party quickly began to consolidate power by placing only trusted members of the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies in positions of power. 

Many lost their trust in Morsi after his 22 November 2012 decree, which rendered his decisions "final and unchallengeable by any individual or body until a new constitution has been ratified and a new parliament has been elected." The declaration also stated that it was unlawful for the judiciary to dissolve the constituent assembly. Dominated by Islamists, this initial constitutional drafting process was devoid of input from members of Egypt’s diverse community of non-Islamist political and social forces, whose representatives had gradually withdrawn in protest. After days of demonstrations, Morsi agreed to limit the decree’s scope to "sovereign matters," but insisted on “his right to protect the constituent assembly.” This declaration was the death knell of what could have been a fruitful transition period under a newly elected civilian president. Soon after came the overnight passage of a constitution that on the one hand “provides for basic protections against arbitrary detention and torture and for some economic rights but fails to end military trials of civilians or to protect freedom of expression and religion.” The constitution was passed amid political turmoil and a lack of broad consensus. These actions further alienated Egyptians yearning for a participatory role in the running of their country’s affairs. 

As an alternative, many had hoped for a more organized, effective and mature opposition that would keep the government in check. Though slow out of the gate, an opposition movement inspired by the current Tamarod campaign has grown with energy and a sense of purpose in recent months. In his speech, Morsi ignored this opposition’s concerns, attacking it as having fallen prey to those “fingers” of conspiratorial interference that he alleges are causing such havoc in Egypt. 

In a recent article, Georgetown University Professor John Esposito described this opposition’s call for early elections, and their 30 June demonstrations, as a threat to democracy: “The attempt to bring down the government… rather than to pressure and insist upon government reforms, reflects the depth and danger of the ‘culture war’ between ‘elected’ Islamists and a so-called secular opposition.” In addition, the US Ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, recently stated publicly that street protests were ineffective, compared with elections. The question remains: since when were peaceful public demonstrations not an effective part of any democratic process? Esposito and Patterson are possibly operating under the assumption that Morsi and his party will observe democratic procedures, including future changes in leadership. Yet to hundreds of young people, workers, and even school-age children, distributing petitions on the streets in major cities and towns in Egypt, Morsi has already shown himself to represent the deep state legacy of Mubarak. The call for early elections when confidence has been so badly eroded in the ruling government, is far from undemocratic, and is surely an act of good faith in the circumstances.

Why are these Egyptians going to the streets again? Because their voice is not being heard, whether by the Brotherhood controlled Shura Council, the Brotherhood dominated government, the Brotherhood appointed prime minister, the various Brotherhood controlled civil institutions such as the Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions, and the list continues. The draft law regulating non-governmental organizations’ work in Egypt is further proof of the Brotherhood’s effort to curb citizens’ freedom of association. So where should Egyptians with serious grievances go? How can they get their collective voices heard? They face little choice but to go back to the streets and protest. As for Morsi’s repeated requests for dialogue - they lose much credibility when the opposition’s presence is only required in order to confirm and support the government’s agenda. As Daniel Brumberg has astutely observed: “If Morsi’s opponents worry that the Brotherhood intends on using a majoritarian process to exclude them, they cannot be blamed. Their call for the ‘masses’ to return to Tahrir is a sign of profound estrangement brought about in part by the actions of Egypt’s elected leaders.”

Morsi is not moving forward with a national agenda that will take Egypt in the direction of the goals and vision of the January 25 Revolution, which demanded “bread, freedom and social justice.” Instead he is pushing a Muslim Brotherhood agenda by placing in key government positions only those the organization trusts, many of whom have little or no experience in governance, or in the portfolios that they are supposed to handle. The result has been the gross mismanagement of key government functions and services: the current gasoline crisis and the disruption it is causing throughout the country is just the latest example. Another recent case was the appointment of seven governors affiliated or sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood in key provinces where its own Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) needs electoral support. Morsi’s appointment of Adel Mohamed al-Khayat as Governor of Luxor was irresponsible, and for many, hard to believe. Al-Khayat, a leader from the extremist Islamist group al-Jama‘a al-Islamiyya which was responsible for the massacre of tourists in Luxor in November 1997, resigned after the ensuing public outcry.

Yet tourism remaining a pillar of the Egyptian economy was among the accomplishments that Morsi presented in his speech. He described it as ailing yet slowly improving, with a slight increase in the numbers visiting Egypt recently. He then thanked the controversial former governor he had appointed for his noble decision to withdraw. Al-Khayat had even gone as far as to say that he could not govern a people and a province that rejected him: “We will not accept that one drop of blood be spilt because of a position that I did not personally aspire to at any time,” he said at a press conference. In all seven provincial capitals to have received new governors, civil disobedience continues, and citizens are not allowing the appointees to enter their offices. There is deep anger on the streets of all the major Egyptian cities and blood has already been spilled in several demonstrations against Morsi, the latest claiming a life on 26 June in Mansoura. We would hope that Morsi takes Al Khayyat’s resignation as an example.

Democracy is much greater and more complex than the ballot box. It is not just based on the results of the polls, but also includes transparency, accountability, respect for the rule of law, and inclusive democratic practices. It entails respect for minority rights where there is majority rule. Yet Morsi did not once mention the mob lynching of four Shi'i Egyptians that took place on 23 June, nor the meteoric rise in sectarian hate speech that his allies have been propagating. The speech was his moment to come forth and strongly condemn these heinous acts in front of the Egyptian people. It was the time to act as genuine “president” and lead the country. Egyptians are still looking for a leader with vision, democratic principles, and the courage to take the necessary steps to secure bread (life), freedom, and social justice in Egypt.

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