Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1127, 20 - 26 December 2012
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1127, 20 - 26 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

Presidential trials and errors

As Egypt’s first freely-elected president after last year’s 25 January Revolution, how is Mohamed Morsi faring, asks Dina Ezzat

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Mohamed Morsi started this year as head of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the long-persecuted-but-popular Muslim Brotherhood. By the spring he was the “back-up” presidential candidate for the FJP and the Brotherhood. On 30 June, he was sworn in as the first-ever freely elected president in Egypt’s history. This week, as 2012 comes to an end, he is occupying a barricaded presidential palace whose back door is being kept ready for a possibly speedy exit.

“I really feel very sorry that I voted for him. It was a big mistake. He cheated us,” said May, a doctor in her late 20s. Queuing up to participate in the referendum over the controversial draft constitution at one of the Heliopolis polling stations last Saturday, this veiled but carefully manicured lady said that it had been three hours since she had taken up her place in a long queue to vote “no” to the constitution.

“This is the least I could do to make up for the mistake of voting for anyone from the Muslim Brotherhood,” she said.

As she shared her frustration with other voters in-waiting, May received a call on her IPhone4. After a brief conversation marked with big smiles, contained laughter and a quick recitation of the Quranic verse in which the Almighty promises to defeat those who don’t keep their promises, May hung up and announced the “great news” that her sister had said on behalf of her husband who had just come home.

“They got [Brotherhood leader] Khairat Al-Shater. They really gave him what he deserves [in terms of insults],” she said to the queries of other voters.

May shared news that was later all over YouTube. The strongman of the Muslim Brotherhood, its vice supreme guide and the original runner for the presidential elections whose legal status as a newly released prisoner blocked his campaign, had gone to vote at a school in Nasr City where he was met with anger by woman voters who shouted “out, out with the liars” at him.

“They lied to us. They promised to work to improve living conditions, security and traffic, but they did nothing. They promised to work in cooperation with other political forces, but they have been taking everything themselves, and they are trying to frighten us with the Salafis. But as we put them in, we will get them out,” May said, supported by other women in the queue. Another veiled woman promised to continue the demonstrations until “Morsi is forced out, with the help of the God Almighty.”

Sources with insights into the regular polling service of the Muslim Brotherhood say that there is a clear awareness in the group that Morsi’s popularity is declining sharply. “It stands at around 20 per cent today, and they know it,” said one source.

Morsi was never a charismatic politician who solicited wide support. Within the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood itself, he was never perceived to be anywhere near Al-Shater, who is said by his supporters, like his critics, to be charismatic, or like Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, a former Brotherhood leader who now heads the Strong Egypt Party and is known to have enormous respect within this oldest political Islam group, especially among the younger generation.

Among the five key presidential candidates, who included Morsi’s round-two adversary Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister of the regime of ousted former president Hosni Mubarak, Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi, Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister and Arab League secretary-general, and Khaled Ali, a prominent labourers’ rights lawyer, Morsi was perceived to have the lowest “presence indicator”, leading some commentators to suggest that no matter what the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood was like on the ground it would be difficult to get this very square, even if good-hearted and hardworking, politician into the presidential palace.

Yet, it happened. “Morsi’s success in the presidential elections was not about Morsi himself or his platform, but about the strong influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. His victory was that of the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Hassan Abu Taleb, a political analyst.

In round one of the presidential elections held in May, Morsi got around five million out of a total of some 25 million votes cast. During the few weeks leading to round two of the elections, Morsi solicited the support of voters from across the political spectrum. In a meeting at the Fairmont Hotel in Heliopolis, Morsi received representatives of diverse political forces and promised consensual and participatory rule in return for their support.

Last June, Morsi was sworn in as president, assuming office against the backdrop of a constitutional declaration issued by the transitional ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which divided the rule of the country between the army leadership and the elected president. This dual rule was later eliminated in mid-August, when the president issued his own presidential declaration to remove the top army leadership and introduce his own team of Islamist-oriented generals in the wake of a breakdown in security in Sinai.

“When he did that we all supported him,” said Mariam, a pharmacist in her 30s. Speaking after having voted “no” to the constitution, this veiled young woman said that she had voted for Morsi in the second round of the presidential elections after having voted for Khaled Ali in the first.

“I voted for him because I was afraid that if Shafik were president there would be repression against his opponents and political activists. But now Morsi is doing what I feared Shafik would have done. It is really very sad,” she said.

During the last six weeks, Morsi has been suffering from political hiccups. These started with the constitutional declaration announced by the presidency on 22 November that gave the president close to full control over all state powers. This particularly infuriated a large part of the country’s judiciary, whose leadership is associated directly or indirectly with the ousted Mubarak regime.

The constitutional declaration prompted widespread demonstrations against it, some spontaneous and others more well-organised. The result was bloody confrontations between supporters, massed under the Muslim Brotherhood and its Salafi allies, and opponents that included everyone from Shafik supporters to independent Islamist activists, along with leftists and those who are apolitical.

On the first day of the demonstrations, Morsi was forced to exit out of the presidential palace ahead of a massive demonstration. The president was said to have been rushed out of the backdoor of the presidential palace. On the second day, eight activists were announced as having been killed during the demonstrations.

In search of an exit, Morsi then forced ahead the vote over a controversial draft of the new constitution that had been abruptly finalised by a drafting committee stripped of all non-Islamist members during its last phase. “That was an attempt to fix one big mistake with another mistake — it accentuated the polarisation that society had fallen into between those who oppose Morsi for a wide range of reasons and those who support him because they subscribe to the political Islam camp,” said Abu Taleb.

In the midst of this political quagmire that he had landed in while trying to defuse what his aides say was a “conspiracy” by his political adversaries “against the president”, Morsi was caught between his now rapidly resigning aides, who were pushing for reconciliatory moves, and the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, which according to sources within the group was blaming the president for his poor political performance and giving him contradictory advice on how to run the political show and attend to economic decision-making.

The latter included the release, and then the freeze, of a decision to increase the prices of some commodities and services in what prompted the scepticism of an even wider segment of society.

At the same time, there was criticism by Brotherhood figures and associated clerics against the Copts and the followers of other churches in Egypt for their opposition to the draft constitution, thus prompting the antagonism of yet another segment of society that was already apprehensive about its future.

“Morsi had discredited himself on so many levels,” said Emad Gad, a political commentator and activist. According to Gad, Morsi, who on the eve of round two of the presidential elections had promised to be “president for all Egyptians”, a promise reiterated following his victory, had discredited himself as an unbiased president. “He acted as the president of the Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis,” Gad said.

One of the remarks that many made on Saturday during the first round of the referendum on the constitution in 10 of the 27 Egyptian governorates was that Morsi, who had started his presidency by going to Tahrir Square to address all those present, even if they had been predominantly Islamist, had now failed to revisit the square where the 25 January Revolution took place. Instead, he had addressed only a group of his supporters next to the presidential palace in Heliopolis.

Morsi’s reserved public presence has been getting more obvious by the week. The president, who went for his first Friday prayers at a crowded and hard-to-secure Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo to be met with genuine signs of support from ordinary citizens, seemed perplexed last Friday about where to go to prayers to avoid the kind of attacks he was subjected to two weeks ago at a neighbourhood mosque, according to a security source.

From the first Friday in July, right after his inauguration, to last Friday, Morsi has acted not just as a strictly Islamist president, but also as a president who does not keep his promises and who fails to streamline state affairs, in the eyes of many commentators.

“The president made several promises about having an independent figure to head his government and having assistants and cabinet members that represented the entire society and above all to improve the quality of life for all Egyptians, but none of this has happened. Even if we could argue like those who say it is a very difficult task to fix the economy or the traffic, we could still say that he has no excuse for breaking his promises regarding a participatory approach to ruling,” Gad said.

He said that Morsi had his eyes on the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis alone and that consequently he had lost all support outside these two groups.

Morsi is “for sure losing his legitimacy”, Gad added. “It has become clear that he is not ruling alone and that his decisions are made upon the directives of Al-Shater and of the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood. Even then, he is not doing a good job.”

For Abu Taleb, who had not supported Morsi during the elections, Morsi had committed the “unforgivable error” of betraying the trust of the nation in favour of the approval of the Islamists. Either his presidency would come to an abrupt end, or he would continue his term in continued political turmoil, Abu Taleb said.

When Morsi goes, the chances of political Islam as a whole holding onto power would exit from the stage for a long while to come, he added.

Leftist activist Wael Khalil, who supported Morsi during the second round of the elections, does not argue that the president has not committed errors during his first six months in office. Nor does he necessarily excuse any of them. However, Khalil said that he did not think that Morsi’s errors were as serious as some have made out. Morsi could still do a U-turn, he suggested.

“So far, we have seen a mediocre performance from the Muslim Brotherhood, especially during the first half of the year before the elected parliament was dissolved,” Khalil said.

The Islamists had enjoyed close to two-thirds of the seats in a parliament elected around this time last year and dissolved during the early days of summer because of the unconstitutional nature of the electoral law. During its early sessions, the parliament failed to impress, and people complained that it was engrossed in irrelevant debates and was failing to adopt legislation that could serve the much-needed socio-economic reforms. At the same time, it was failing to pursue the rights of the martyrs who had died during the revolution.

During the second half of the year, Khalil said, Morsi has started his presidency without a parliament amidst hopes that “he would cease the moment he went beyond the lines of his traditional constituency and those of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist quarters. But unfortunately he did not.”

“It was not that difficult. He could have reached out to the people even if at the expense of the consent of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, and he could have garnered wider public support that would have been more fortifying than any Brotherhood organisational skills. But unfortunately, and typically of the Muslim Brotherhood’s style, he failed to take account of the masses.”

Today, despite the growing scepticism, things are not too late for Morsi, Khalil said. “The vast majority of people want Morsi to fix his performance and stay on as president, rather than wanting him to go. That would mean another long [and open-ended] political process,” he said.

The recipe for the reform, some might even say salvaging, of Morsi’s presidency is not too complicated, according to Khalil. He needs to adopt a more participatory approach in which he includes the views of other political forces in practice and not just in theory.

According to Khalil, Morsi also needs to convince the Muslim Brotherhood to refrain from adopting the kind of dominating techniques enforced during the Mubarak regime and that eventually led to the fall of Mubarak himself. Above all, Khalil insisted, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood needed to go beyond the sentiment of “self-victimisation” that could make alleged or possible adversaries’ conspiracies self-fulfilling prophecies.

“There will always be problems, but if he has the people with him, and not just his group, he can find a way to attend to these problems. I am convinced that angry as people are today with his performance and the polarisation of society, they will still give him the benefit of the doubt, even if as reluctantly as in the second round of the elections,” Khalil concluded.

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