Egypt’s Morsi Faces Political D-Day One Year After Being Sworn in as President

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Amr Abdallah Dalsh / REUTERS

Egypt's President Mohamed Mursi during a meeting with South Korea's presidential envoy and former Foreign Minister at the presidential palace in Cairo October 8, 2012.

Sunday will mark the one-year anniversary of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s inauguration. It will be met not by celebration but by nationwide anxiety and large-scale — possibly violent — protests. Egypt’s opposition is planning far more than an expression of dissatisfaction; protesters see the demonstrations as the start of a push bring Morsi’s four-year term to a premature end.

There’s intense internal debate over how that would actually work—one opposition wing wants to force Morsi to resign through sustained peaceful protest while another openly favors partnering with the military in a quasi-coup. Either way, opposition thinking has coalesced around one demand: Morsi, a former senior official in the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, must go.

The condemnation comes from many camps. This week, revolutionary icon and alumnus of the TIME 100, Wael Ghonim, who supported Morsi a year ago, launched a broadside on Youtube – accusing Morsi of polarizing and crippling the nation and calling for him to resign.

“No country advances when the society is divided like this,” said Ghonim, one of the planners of the revolution. “And the main role of the president of the republic is to unite, but, unfortunately, Dr. Morsi, the president of the republic, has miserably failed to do this.”

It’s a remarkable turn-around for a man who is his country’s first democratically elected civilian president. He was elected in what observers considered free and open elections and his victory was greeted with joy and relief by thousands after the toppling of former President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. So what has gone wrong for Morsi? Here’s a breakdown of the Egyptian premier’s failings over the course of a contentious year:

Consensus Building

Arguably this should have been Morsi’s top priority, when he found himself at the helm of a wounded and fragile nation struggling toward an uncertain democratic future. It hasn’t gone well.

Morsi’s first year has spawned a tremendous amount of bad blood between his government and the non-Islamist opposition. Most worrying for Morsi is that many of the moderate activists and revolutionaries who publicly advocated working with him have since lost faith in his ability to rule.

“I went through three stages with him,” says Hisham Kassem, a veteran human rights activists and independent publisher who admits to celebrating Morsi’s victory over Mubarak-era Prime Minister and former Air Force commander Ahmed Shafiq a year ago. “One was, ‘Give him a chance’. Two was, ‘I’m disappointed’. Three, after the constitutional disaster, was ‘Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are a threat and a menace to democracy.’”

The true breaking point for many was Morsi’s handling of the constitution late last year. Secularists complained from the start of the process that the 100-member Constituent Assembly drafting the document was hopelessly stacked with Brotherhood cadres and their Salafist allies. It all culminated in Morsi’s late November powerplay: he protected the Assembly from dissolution by Egypt’s activist judges and rail-roaded a January constitutional referendum that approved the document over the screams of the opposition.

For Morsi’s critics it, was the point of no return. And the effect on the Egyptian political scene was catastrophic. All positive lines of communication were seemingly broken; decades-long bipartisan friendships between Islamists and secularists — relationships forged when both sides were fighting Mubarak together—ended.

For Morsi’s backers, however, the constitutional maneuvering was necessary to head off a cabal of senior judges determined to undo all the gains of the revolution.

“I know it was unpopular and [Morsi] has paid a price for it, but it was all necessary. The opposition needs to stop acting like the constitution was the end of the world,” says Islam Abdel Rahman, a foreign affairs analyst for the Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party. Referring to the Tamarod (Rebel) grassroots petition campaign, which claims to have gathered 15 million signatures calling for Morsi’s resignation, Abdel Rahman said: “If they really have 15 million signatures, they should be taking that support and focusing on parliamentary elections later this year and the next presidential vote in 2016.”

Since the constitutional crisis, Morsi has played almost exclusively to his Islamist base. His most recent public appearance—a June 26 address to his nervous nation—was a classic example. Morsi spent most of the 150-minute speech complaining about the opposition’s refusal to work with him and openly playing to the cheering Brotherhood supporters who packed the conference hall and chanted for him on cue.

The Economy

The Egyptian economy is on the verge of imploding—limping by on a steady flow of strings-attached gifts from wealthy Gulf patron-states.

To an extent, this is a political problem. Morsi’s failure to build consensus and make non-Islamists feel included in the process has bred bitterness, instability and unrest—all of which has crippled the economy by stifling tourism and scaring away foreign investment.

As Morsi himself said in his Wednesday night speech: “Why would a tourist come to a country where there are roads being cut off [by protests] and molotovs?”

But the Morsi administration has also struggled to put forth a coherent economic plan and at times has publicly shown a serious lack of political will. In December, the government performed a bizarre and revealing public about-face that would have garnered far more attention if it didn’t come right in the heart of the constitutional fight.

A sudden package of new taxes was announced—designed to appease the International Monetary Fund and speed the path to a desperately needed emergency loan. The taxes were abruptly repealed by Morsi within 24 hours.

“The government really doesn’t have an economic vision,” said Magdi Sobhi, an economist and the deputy director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “I’m not seeing any achievement at all. Literally everything is worse.”

But Gehad al Haddad, a senior FJP advisor and Brotherhood spokesman, said Morsi hasn’t had a chance to even begin to implement a plan. Much of the president’s energy has been spent fending off the counter-revolutionary intentions of the judicial branch while trying to push through reform without the aid of functioning parliament.

“Don’t forget, he has yet to have a fully functional and cooperative government. Of the three branches one is compromised and dedicated to blocking Morsi’s every move and the other is absent, ” Al Haddad said.

Political Instincts

The first sign that Morsi might just be a little politically tone-deaf came last year on the day before his inauguration. In the middle of a well-received speech delivered i a packed and raucous Tahrir Square, Morsi paused for a spontaneous aside about how he would work to free Omar Abdel Rahman—the blind Egyptian cleric serving a U.S. life sentence for plotting terrorist attacks.

His fledgling political team scrambled to spin the gaffe and reassure an alarmed U.S. government.

When angry Islamist crowds (incensed by a shoddy amateur movie insulting the life of Prophet Muhammad) scaled the U.S. embassy walls and took down the American flag last September, Morsi similarly seemed oblivious to international sensitivities. For an entire day, the government said nothing to condemn the trespassing and disrespect of the embassy grounds. Only a harsh public rebuke from President Obama forced Morsi to speak out against the actions of the local protestors.

Morsi’s most recent political misjudgment came during a re-shuffle of Egypt’s 27 governors. He named a member of the Islamic Group, a radical Salafist organization that battled Mubarak throughout the 1990s, as the new governor of Luxor—the same place where Group gunmen slaughtered 58 tourists in November 1997.

The Islamic Group has since publicly sworn off violence and formed a political party, but the national response was apoplectic. Morsi’s own tourism minister publicly resigned and a week of steady protests eventually forced the erstwhile governor to withdraw as well.

“The lack of political awareness is just stunning,” said Wael Khalil, a veteran socialist activist who publicly celebrated Morsi’s ascension a year ago. “It’s just sheer blundering.” 

Circling the Wagons

Officials within the Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) feel backed into a corner in a room full of conspiracies. They speak bitterly of an active counter-revolution taking place on multiple fronts, energized by an almost nihilistic opposition that would rather see the country burn under Morsi’s watch than work with him.

“Yes there are a lot of problems, but we can’t separate [Morsi’s] performance from the larger context,” said Abdel Rahman. “He’s being attacked and resisted by the security sector, the judicial sector, the media sector and the political sector.”

With both sides so deeply entrenched, the countryً’s army remains a wild card with every statement closely parsed for deeper meaning. Last week Defense Minister Abdel Fatah Al Sissi caused a stir by declaring the army “impartial and neutral” and generally above politics. But he added a crucial caveat: “We will not stand still and watch the country slide into chaos.”

Morsi’s supporters point to his considerable victory last year in ousting his military rivals and establishing civilian rule over the armed forces, a move vital for safeguarding Egyptian democracy. “I don’t think he has had close to a fair chance,” said Al Haddad, speaking of Morsi. “The President is doing his best.”

Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist and author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation.