Morsi's Mistake

The Error Behind the Uproar in Egypt

Graffiti of Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi. (Amr Dalsh / Courtesy Reuters)

Once again, Egyptians are out in the streets. Yet these demonstrations are quite different from those in January and February 2011, when people of every faith, class, and political persuasion joined together to bring down a dictator. Indeed, Egypt's triumph of national unity has turned into a bitter impasse over narrow interests. Demonstrators surround the Supreme Constitutional Court not to protect the sacred institution but to shut it down, judges declare an open-ended strike, and groups of angry protesters rally against one another, each challenging the other's right to a place in the national dialogue. In the abstract, heated debate is a good thing for countries undergoing political transitions. In Egypt, however, the result has been instability.

There are a variety of explanations for Egypt's tribulations. Some argue that decisions made by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)  back in February and March 2011, including on the timing of the transition and the principles that guided it, explain the current bind. Others point to the lack of a permanent constitution and parliament, which the SCAF dissolved in June 2012 at the recommendation of Egypt's highest court. These critics argue that the absence of rules, regulations, and laws left the country vulnerable to the whims of incompetent generals and then authoritarian Islamists. Egyptian liberals and secular revolutionaries, meanwhile, fear the Islamist ideology of President Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader. Egypt's newly approved draft constitution, which includes a particular interpretation of Islamic law, and a massive Brotherhood-sponsored rally last Saturday to "save sharia" from opponents of the new code only reinforce their fears.

There is truth in all of these explanations. Certainly, it would have been easier to consolidate a new political order if the SCAF had laid out a more sensible transition, if the officers had not dissolved the People's Assembly, or if the drafting of the highest law in the land had been more inclusive. But the deadlock in Egyptian politics runs deeper. Morsi's decisions last month to grant himself powers above any court, retry the deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, and rush the passing of a new Brotherhood-driven draft constitution -- and his party's unwillingness to acknowledge the legitimate concerns of millions of Egyptians -- result from a worldview that should be familiar to Egyptians.

The Brothers, like the Free Officers who came to power in 1952 and produced Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Mubarak, are what the Yale anthropologist James Scott calls "high modernists." High modernism, which places a premium on scientific knowledge and elites with special skills, is inherently authoritarian. It might seem a strange designation for the Brotherhood, since most observers think of it as a religious movement. But in reality, the group has used religion to advance a political agenda. To suggest that the organization's leaders are dilettantes when it comes to Islam would be an overstatement, but the majority of them are first and foremost doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, and engineers. They think of themselves as a vanguard that is uniquely qualified to rebuild Egypt and realize its seemingly endless quest for modernization. Moreover, they believe that the people entrusted them with the responsibility to do so as a result of free and fair elections in late 2011 and 2012.

With the Brotherhood in control of the now-dissolved People's Assembly, Shura Council, Constituent Assembly, and the presidency, this vanguard thought it could choose a path for Egypt within the councils of its own organization. There was no need for consensus or negotiation, hence Morsi's August 12 decision to decapitate the national security establishment and his subsequent efforts to place sympathizers in influential positions within the state-controlled media. In a television interview broadcast on November 29, he even called his recent decree an effort to "fulfill the demands of the public and the revolution." There is, he implied, no reason to question his decisions, which were in the best interest of Egypt.

Morsi's miscalculation -- which both he and the Brotherhood later compounded -- was to think that everyone understood the results of the Egyptian elections the way the Brothers did. In other words, that they gave him and his party a mandate to rule with little regard for those who might disagree. The Brotherhood's discrediting of the tens of thousands who turned out in protest as felool (remnants of the old regime) and thugs was not only positively Mubarak-esque but also reinforced Morsi's "Brothers know best" approach to Egypt's political problems. It is easy to dismiss the opposition's charge that Morsi is the "new Mubarak" as hyperbole from a group of people who have become well-versed in manufacturing outrage. Still, they have a point. Both men share the high-modernist worldview, which did not bode well for political reform under the previous regime and does not augur well for democracy in Egypt's future.

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