In recent days President Mohamed Morsi and his government have drastically eroded what little hope observers had for Egypt`s troubled political transition. The president`s aggressive tone in public speeches has coincided with the escalation of violent "thuggery" under the aegis of an unreformed Ministry of Interior. Whereas analysts have rightly noted similarities between Morsi and the fallen regime of Hosni Mubarak, his style also recalls the turbulent second term of Anwar al-Sadat (1976-1981). Of course, Morsi came to office through an election. Beyond that, however, the parallels between him and Sadat mount quickly. Moreover, the parallels may soon overshadow the electoral contrast differentiating the two men. As Morsi reincarnates the crisis environment of the late 1970s, his authoritarian measures far exceed the mandate Egyptians vested in him last summer.
For perspective on the balance between Morsi`s initial electoral legitimacy and his actions as president, it is worth indulging in a historical thought experiment. What if Sadat, instead of being reelected with a bogus near-unanimous vote in September 1976, had actually garnered 51.7 percent support—while a little over forty-eight percent of Egyptians voted against him? In addition, let us say Sadat`s party won control of parliament in contested elections that drew less than ten percent of voters to the polls. (These are the electoral parameters of Morsi`s rule, while the Shura Council serves as the sole legislative body and the country awaits elections for the House of Representatives that may not begin till October.) Then, imagine that Sadat took all the same measures for which he became infamous: brutally crushing the price riots, criminalizing demonstrations, restricting the media, expanding the role of religion in law and public discourse, ignoring attacks upon Christians, hampering women`s rights, and, most notoriously, warping the justice system to arrest dissidents. In that context, would Sadat`s September 1981 roundup of his opponents have been any less autocratic and any more acceptable because of the election that installed its author? Would his regime have not already fallen far short of the minimum requirements for even illiberal democracy?
Nine months into Morsi`s tenure the record of executive abuse is breathtaking. After decades of military rule, his initial steps to remove the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) from politics appeared salutary. His November constitutional declaration and assertion of unchecked power raised more problems. Yet it too could have been understood as a short-term measure toward ending political uncertainty. The president`s actions, though, soon validated his detractors` gravest doubts. Rather than later taking extraordinary steps to bridge the fissures that accompanied his election, Morsi alienated his critics and polarized the country.
The past week has exposed a president who is eager to claim unchecked authority but loathe to harness that same authority for stability and national reconciliation. After failing to stop the hooliganism plaguing Cairo, Morsi lashed out against last Friday`s demonstrators who attempted to march on the Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Bureau in Moqattam. Last Sunday, Morsi delivered a threat reminiscent of Sadat`s ominous January 1977 pledge that democracy had "fangs one hundred times sharper than the extraordinary measures" of dictatorship. “There is a president of the republic and there are emergency measures if any [one] makes even the smallest of moves that undermines Egypt or the Egyptians," Morsi yelled while banging the table, "If I have to do what is necessary to protect this nation I will, and I am afraid that I may be close to doing so… Let us not be dragged into an area where I will take a harsh decision.” The remainder of Morsi`s speech, touted to promote women`s rights, hardly fixed the damage caused after his administration undermined a recent UN commission declaration on eradicating violence against women and maligned the commission`s lead participant from Egypt, National Commission of Women head Mervat Al-Tellawi. Moreover, the president`s heavy-handed bid to provide security proved immediately to be partisan and one-sided.
That evening, Morsi and his Minister of Interior, Mohamed Ibrahim, were conspicuously unwilling "to do what is necessary" to protect one corner of Cairo, Media Production City, which hosts the country`s top news studios. Police forces stood aside as hoodlums arrived in buses and encircled the complex, eventually forming a cordon and turning away employees and guests trying to reach the set of their programs. (During the past nine months, satellite channels have become a pillar of the opposition and a lightning rod for criticism from Islamist commentators.) Political science professor Dr. Hassan Nafie of Cairo University has described his ordeal Sunday night getting inside to appear on MBC`s "Jumla Mufida." After the show, Nafie gave a lift to fellow guest and director of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights Hafez Abu Seada, but their car was nearly overtaken when a mob of self-appointed sentries tried to snatch Abu Seada from the vehicle and assault him because of his advocacy work. Rather than being dispersed by the state, the siege of Media Production City continued into Monday morning, at which point Minister Ibrahim made a belated appearance.
The contrast between Morsi`s ferocious vow to bring order and the attack on Egypt`s private television hub speaks volumes about how a mix of executive overreach and strategic indifference has ratcheted social tension to historical levels. In post-revolutionary Egypt, while discrimination against women and Christians rises, and the economy falters, Morsi refuses to expand his ruling coalition and incorporate leading figures from outside the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt`s religious right. Indeed, the only time his government seems inclined to reach out to non-Islamist activists is to arrest them, as Morsi`s controversial Public Prosecutor began doing on Monday. Nafie and Abu Seada, in their discussion on MBC Sunday night, presciently anticipated such a Sadatist tactic by the president and his associates.
It is not too late, however, for Morsi to confound the skeptics, break the mold of his predecessors, and lead a transition with meaningful pluralism, not periodic electoralism. Such an approach requires incorporating alternative viewpoints and recognizing that the opposition—no matter how many votes it got in the last election—merits guarantees from arbitrary rule, selective enforcement of the law, and political persecution. In the absence of such fundamental protections, dissidents will continue marching in the streets, no matter how perilous.
[Jason Brownlee recently visited Egypt. Research for this article was supported by a grant from the United States Institute of Peace.]