Friday,20 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1144, 18 - 24 April 2013
Friday,20 July, 2018
Issue 1144, 18 - 24 April 2013

Ahram Weekly

Change of tack

President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood move from confrontation to containment, at least for now, writes Dina Ezzat

Al-Ahram Weekly



Caught in an extended traffic jam in Heliopolis drivers beeped their horns with more enthusiasm than anger. They were not protesting against Cairo’s endless traffic congestion but responding to a novel protest against the performance of President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

A young man and veiled woman were standing in the street carrying placards that read “If you want to tell Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood that you dislike them, beep your horns.”

It was a scene that was repeated last week in streets across Cairo, Alexandria and Daqahliya, the beep your horn to protest initiative one of a series of unorthodox actions expressing contempt for the way Morsi and the group from which he hails assume Egypt can be ruled.

“We have so many reasons to dislike Morsi. Our lives have become much harder. Everything is a lot more expensive and we suffer under an appalling security situation,” says Horreya, a retired civil servant.

Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly while doing her weekly shopping at a supermarket chain owned by a leading Muslim Brotherhood businessman, Horreya said she does not care who owns the shops she uses so long as they offer decent prices. Nor does she much mind who runs the country as long as they run it well.

Like her retired civil servant husband Horreya has regularly voted for the Muslim Brotherhood in parliamentary elections over the last two decades. They also voted for Morsi in the second round of presidential elections, despite objections from their three children, “thinking that he would help the country stand up on its feet after the rule of [ousted president Hosni] Mubarak left Egypt in a mess”.

Today, she says, “everything is about 30 per cent more expensive”, from electricity to supermarket and pharmacy bills. The Muslim Brotherhood, says Horreya, has proved a disappointment.

“Our lives are much harder today than in the days of Mubarak. And we thought we were going to move forward.”

While officially the Muslim Brotherhood refuses to concede its popularity is being dented, off the record it is another story. “Biased media reports and the scheming of anti-Muslim Brotherhood agitators are causing deepening dislike of the Muslim Brotherhood and the president” said one Muslim Brother speaking on condition of anonymity.

Younger members of the group, however, do not believe the Brotherhood’s bad press is the sole reason for the fall-off in support.

“Yes, there is a campaign of defamation but this cannot be the only reason we are losing the support of people who used to sympathise with us when the regime of Mubarak gave us such a hard time,” said a member of the group’s younger leadership cadre.

It is a view that he says has finally been taken on board by the group’s older leaders. “Now we write a one page report that includes remarks that we hear from co-workers and family and friends about why they dislike the Muslim Brotherhood.” The aim, he says, is to keep a close finger on the public pulse.

Falling living standards, a deteriorating economy and a perceived collapse in law and order are regularly voiced complaints against Morsi and his regime. But they also stand accused of perpetuating the mistakes of their predecessor, harassing journalists, threatening their critics and refusing to listen to the opposition. More significant, perhaps, the Brotherhood is increasingly perceived as attempting to replicate the National Democratic Party’s monopoly of key state institutions as it seeks to pack them with its own supporters and yes men.

So is the sudden appearance of bottom-up reports the reason behind a seeming shift in the regime’s tactics away from confrontation, most notably with the army, and towards containment, including the military, the media and the judiciary? 

No, say official sources. The shift reflects less a growing awareness on the part of Brotherhood bigwigs of public discontent than the head of state’s keenness to pursue stability and end political polarisation.

“Let’s be realistic. If we want to get investments, if we want to finally sign the agreement with the IMF to get the loan we need then we have to stabilise the situation a little,” said a source in the prime minister’s office.

In a clear sign of this containment, Morsi met with the minister of defence and, independently and collectively, with other leading members of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF).

The meetings, said one presidential source, offered a chance for SCAF members to share their concerns over current problems, with some expressing deep concern over the “mismanagement” of the situation during last week’s attack on the Coptic Cathedral. SCAF members also expressed their worries over remarks made by some.

“Morsi is trying very hard to appease to the military, having assumed that if the military is neutralised then his presidency will be spared any serious challenge,” says Mohamed Adel of the 6 April Movement. “The problem is his calculations are mistaken. It is the anger of the people that constitutes the main challenge to Morsi and the army will act accordingly.”

Morsi’s containment strategy is not just about accommodating the army. This week the presidency announced that it was withdrawing all legal complaints against journalists and TV anchors accused of defaming the president.

“He promised to do this when he met with Catherine Ashton [the EU foreign policy envoy] in Cairo,” said one Cairo-based European diplomat.

During his meeting with Ashton, say Egyptian and European sources, Morsi also said he planned a government reshuffle to allow the cabinet greater independence, and that the Supreme Judiciary Council would be invited to forward names to replace the controversial prosecutor-general in an attempt to initiate a thaw in relations with the opposition and the judiciary.

Hussein Abdel-Ghani, spokesman of the National Salvation Front (NSF), is not holding his breath as he waits for Morsi to honour his promises to Ashton. He failed to keep his word to the secular opposition that supported him during the second round of presidential elections against Ahmed Shafik, says Abdel-Ghani, and there is no reason at all to expect he will behave more honourably now.

“Let’s face it. Morsi is not really in the driving seat. He’s the man who executes the directions of the Muslim Brotherhood and as such is in no position to make promises, let alone keep them,” says Abdel-Ghani. Neither Morsi nor his group, he adds, shows any sign they are about to embrace consensual government. 

The NSF, reveals Abdel-Ghani, has no reason to be anything but sceptical about the conciliatory noise Morsi is making.

“If the president wants to resolve core issues rather than just try and suggest to the public that he is doing so then he knows perfectly well actions are required in addition to words.”

The NSF had been consistent in its demands for an independent government, an independent prosecutor-general and changes to an the election law “tailored to Muslim Brotherhood requirements”.

According to Hassan Abu Taleb, a senior political analyst at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, Morsi’s approach to reconciliation is ultimately “an exercise in the application of cosmetics”.

“The Muslim Brotherhood and the president are aware that they are courting ever greater unpopularity and they are trying to act to fix it. The trouble is they are going about it the wrong way,” says Abu Taleb. He finds Morsi’s decision to communicate via Twitter telling, arguing that it reveals Morsi thinks his problem is essentially to do with PR, and with a very specific group of tech savvy activists.

Morsi, says Abu Taleb, has yet to understand that his plummeting popularity “has one simple reason — people’s lives are harder today than during the days of Mubarak”.

“This is why there is growing sympathy towards Mubarak. It explains Mubarak’s high morale during the Saturday session of the launch of his retrial.”

According to Abu Taleb, by pursuing a “surface containment policy” Morsi is also trying to send foreign allies, especially in Washington, the message that he is not a dictator and remains worthy of their support.

It is a strategy that could prove risky if this week’s Boston marathon bombings turn out to be the doing of an Islamist militant group. For then, says Abu Taleb, the price for “Morsi — or any other moderate Islamist regime — keeping Washington happy will be much higher than containing their domestic political scene”.

“Islamists in office will then be required by Washington to work in alliance with the West against radical militant Islamist groups whether this is supported or opposed by public opinion in the concerned Arab and Muslim countries.”


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