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How Morsi, Brotherhood Lost Egypt

Inclusion and civil cohesion must become the cornerstone of Egypt’s transition.
A boy with his face painted in the colours of Egypt's national flag attends a rally held by anti-Mursi protesters at Tahrir square in Cairo July 4, 2013. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah (EGYPT - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTX11CR8

CAIRO — I was in Tahrir when they announced Mubarak was ousted. I was in Tahrir when they announced Morsi had won. And I was also in Tahrir as they announced Morsi was ousted.

Each time was a remarkably different experience for me, only united by roaring crowds, waving flags, fireworks, hugs from strangers and a big sense of relief. This time, the cheers were even more deafening. They were not just in Tahrir, but in other squares around Cairo and the country, all packed without any real organizational power behind them. The floods of people in the streets around Cairo appeared to me bigger than before, people seemed to genuinely believe they “took back their country,” and that the military was a hero doing all the right things. But perhaps what characterized this time in Tahrir for me was my sense of worry, deeper than ever before.

I believe that Mohammed Morsi had won his election, despite the more hardcore of the anti-Morsi camp's claims of fraud and voter intimidation by the Muslim Brotherhood, and that the Brotherhood had secretly threatened violence if they lost (likely, this narrative will be intentionally magnified now to make the new order even more acceptable). I believe in democracy and I have always argued in favor of the democratic process taking its course in Egypt, and always argued against any political exclusion. I consistently called for national reconciliation and compromise as the most sustainable way forward. Having said all of that, I cannot shake my conviction that Morsi, and the Brotherhood, had it coming. It was inevitable that an explosion was coming.

Until November, many had held on to the idea that Morsi and the Brotherhood were wise enough not to overplay their hand, that they knew how complicated the situation in Egypt was and that unilateralism would only bring them down. Many believed that the Brotherhood would learn from the poignant history of deposed president Hosni Mubarak and the National Democratic Party, from which they suffered perhaps the most. Many felt Morsi would be wise enough to realize he was barely elected (51.7% of the vote) against a candidate who many viewed as representing the former regime, and with the vital aid of a strong, multi-ideological revolutionary coalition that supported him based on promises of inclusion and unity.

But the problem was that it became more and more apparent that the Brotherhood was intent not on building a democratic administration, but a new regime.

Following a mixed start with ups and downs, Morsi and the Brotherhood suffered a massive blow after his November constitutional declaration. This was followed by continued and gradual erosion of faith for months. In his most infamous act, Morsi astonishingly saw it justifiable to give himself the power to unilaterally amend the constitutional declaration. He officially declared himself, albeit temporarily until his specific purposes for the time were achieved, immune to any judicial review in an act reminiscent of cartoonish fictional takes on autocrats.

He assaulted the separation of powers by handpicking an allied prosecutor-general in a manner that defied the post-revolution national consensus of letting the judiciary nominate the candidate to such a role, and whose removal remained a strong divisive point in any attempt at national reconciliation. This controllable prosecutor-general, against which almost the entire prosecutorial corps protested and nearly succeeded in firing, was used quite clearly at will to go after the private media and the opposition as a direct extension of Morsi and the Brotherhood, while substantially legally shielding the Brotherhood at the same time.

The president, the Brotherhood and its allies, continuously tried to assume an unfairly tight grip over the constitution-drafting process. They also broke promises to ensure a constitution that garnered sufficient national consensus. Instead, and under the cover of the November constitutional declaration, Morsi and the Brotherhood rushed a referendum on a disappointing and dangerous draft without real proper national debate (in a country with substantial illiteracy and areas with little access to anything but state media, which was also under Brotherhood influence), against the walkout of all opposition members, the church, civil and human rights organizations and others.

The constitution, which was supposed to be the crowning achievement of Egypt’s transition, became one of its most divisive elements and deepest causes for national conflict. The opposition holds that its claims over voting violations never got any real consideration. The Brotherhood later acknowledged some of the holes in the constitution, but the road for its rectification remained a thorny issue.

In another breach of revolutionary consensus, Morsi and the Brotherood tightened control over state media and retained the nationally rejected role of information minister, already abolished briefly after the toppling of Hosni Mubarak. State-owned papers and channels were subjected to appointments of allied or controllable leaderships. The media often ran familiar propaganda-esque headlines that seemed taken out of the Mubarak days. Furthermore, state press and television did not provide neutral and balanced coverage of events, and state TV was almost always forced to host a Brotherhood guest on every talk show, or at the very least not host an opposition figure on his own.

Reports of guest blacklists also began to surface once more. Charges of “insulting the president” and “contempt of religion” began to pile up against media figures, often made by Brotherhood allies rather than directly by the Brotherhood (though the presidency did press some charges before retracting them under local and international pressure). Morsi and the Brotherhood seemed to care very little about fixing the problematic legislative framework for media, and gradually appeared to find it handy, especially with a prosecutor-general that was under full control. 

The Brotherhood was also widely seen to be working on the “Brotherhoodization” of the state, even to the outcry of its former Islamist allies such as the Salafist Al-Nour party. Increasingly, the Brotherhood and Morsi began appointing loyalist figures in key state positions. While the appointments of political allies and fellow party members to key positions is a part of democracy, the Brotherhood's actions were widely seen as an attempt to solidify their grip on the state in a manner that threatened any modicum of neutrality by the state institutions, especially while the national mood was still strongly in favor of greater unity. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood continuously defied unanimous demands to subject itself as an organization to full government or public oversight of its activities and resources.

The Brotherhood and Morsi also used the upper house of parliament as an ultra-active legislative house. The Brotherhood-dominated institution was originally an advisory body elected by only 7% of the electorate and whose elections were somewhat ignored by the opposition. Although the original claim was that the Shura Council would only rubber stamp consensus legislation until the lower house would be elected, it was turned into a full parliament. It discussed far-reaching and controversial drafts, including: a non-governmental organization law that was widely seen as capable of stifling civil society in Egypt; divisive electoral and political rights laws that were criticized as favoring the Islamists; and even a disastrous judicial reform law that would have axed around 3,500 existing judges in an already choking legal system. The latter draft was openly seen as a move to get rid of judges that were problematic to the Brotherhood’s  plans (though significant politicization of the judiciary could not be denied), while there were wide fears of intentions to replace them with a new generation of more sympathetic judges or outright Brotherhood members.

Already, Morsi and the Brotherhood had antagonized much of the judiciary through his constitutional declaration in November, the appointment of the prosecutor-general, the downsizing of the constitutional court to get ride of specific judges, and more. They remained seemingly defiant on passing their most controversial move against the judiciary, despite wide rejection.

Then there was the Brotherhood’s handling of the Egyptian state, which drew the ire of a vast swathe of the population (not that the opposition-aligned media did not fan the flames, and sensationalist reporting was substantially prevalent). For a year, the country lacked economic vision and governmental transparency or even managerial aptitude. The Qandil government was unanimously criticized by the country’s forces as inept and failing, remarkably (and confusingly) even by the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. The country was subject to increasing electricity blackouts, growing foreign debt, the availability of bread and fuel became a deep concern, and more.

Of course, not all of it could be blamed on Morsi and the government, but it was clear that the current policies and government were failing. Morsi, nonetheless, hung on to Qandil despite everyone’s demands to replace him, and refused calls for either a neutral technocratic or a genuine national coalition government to oversee the country until elections. When a government reshuffle did take place, Morsi only brought it more allies, some of whom seemed incapable for their posts, infuriating much of the public and the country’s forces.

There was also the question of Morsi and the Brotherhood's loss of credibility, a strong factor given the banner of the Islamic-based project. The Brotherhood and the president had repeatedly reneged on several key promises and claims. For example, there stunningly turned out to be no “Renaissance Project,” a campaign centerpiece allegedly many years in the making. The project promised a full plan with defined resources to help Egypt grow and prosper. The Brotherhood had promised to run for no more than 30% of parliament, then ran for all seats. They promised not to run for president, and fielded two candidates. While there were public calls for dialogue, behind the scenes the Brotherhood directly rebuffed many of the opposition's core demands as virtually non-negotiable, according to opposition sources.

Christians increasingly felt marginalized under Morsi. Brotherhood-allied media regularly used sectarian language and claims. Many Christians felt unprotected from sectarian violence and that official moves were meant as decorative and to appease international opinion. Many also were deeply perturbed by Morsi's failing to show up for the pope’s enthronement. Few Christians were appointed to high-ranking positions in the state, and claims that the president would appoint vice presidents and include a Christian were not fulfilled.

By the time June 30 neared, Morsi had alienated and antagonized everyone but his most radical allies.

He had earned the strong disapproval of the leaderships of Al-Azhar and the church, the country’s Christians, the largest Salafist (and overall second) political party, civil society, most of the military and the police (pre-existing biases put into consideration), the judiciary, the opposition, the media, his former revolutionary and election partners, much of the business community, and clearly a large majority of the Egyptian population.

Even the president’s Islamist culture minister antagonized much of the intelligentsia. Although people widely agreed that the ministry and its activities needed reforms and were filled with corruption as well as an understanding that the ministry should be open to wider cultural directions, there was an outcry against seemingly arbitrary firings of people in key positions. In one case, a firing occured a couple of days after he promised not to fire the subsequently sacked manager of the Cairo Opera House. The previously unknown minister was being accused of having little qualification for the role, except for having written an article denouncing the opposition and the media months earlier. Two sit-ins defiantly ensued by artists and the intelligentsia, against what they believed to be an aggressive plan to staff the state's cultural institutions with Brotherhood allies and to forcefully change the Egyptian identity, at least as they saw it..

In his speech, days before the June 30 protests, in which Morsi was expected to appeal for national dialogue and reconciliation, Morsi gave two speeches, moving back and forth between them. The first was an official written speech in which he seemed to be making some overtures, written in classic Arabic. The second, a long list of side and largely spontaneous colloquial commentary, was filled with ludicrous and dangerous name-calling of opposing figures, including touting taxation and bank problems for the named owners of opposition TV channels, effectively calling his still popular electoral opponent a criminal despite ongoing investigations, directly accusing a judge of forging previous elections.

Morsi then stunningly began arguing that “one year was enough” for his patience with the media and opposing forces. Immediately after his speech, the investment authority and the prosecutor’s office began to move against the opposition media again, including putting the owner of an opposition channel on a no-fly list, reportedly restarting investigations against media figures. One channel was even taken off the air, and there was wide acceptance that other private media channels and figures were going to be decisively pursued once the June 30 protests would amount to nothing. There were even considerable leaks within the opposition before the uprising that the prosecution was planning to crack down on them after the June 30 protests, though that is a claim more difficult to substantiate. The lead management of a government-run conference center, which had recently hosted opposition news conferences, was also sacked the following day.

One can write even more on the subject, but instead, I wish to move to the other side of the discussion.

I profoundly wish Morsi had just either accepted real reconciliation earlier or had just called early elections given the massive public pressure that built from June 30 onward, even while recognizing a large base demonstrated in support of him. I repeatedly argued that reconciliation was key, beginning with a wiser and a more tactful opposition (whose disorganization, strategy and polarizing tactics were undeniably a genuine part of the problems in Egypt) and a less arrogant Brotherhood.

Egyptian democracy, the stability of the country and the peaceful coexistence of its groups are right now in a deeply worrying place. With the former president and his staff’s liberty under control, the recent moves to arrest Brotherhood leaders and allies, and the immediate blackout of allied religious channels, there is reason to be deeply concerned, and many are worried of a witch hunt against Islamists. What is also troubling is that the return of a police state in this current scenario is a very likely possibility, and potentially with the large blessing of a public that is now worried of Islamist violence and is in desperate need for stability.

As the reign of the military from 2011 to 2012 had demonstrated, the military is not exactly a paragon of freedom. An analyst, tweeting yesterday, rightly argued that the local feeling of mandate for a crackdown on Islamists now was possibly much bigger than anything that might have existed under Mubarak in recent times. But Egypt will never find stability, and its democracy will never thrive, without inclusiveness, fairness, due process and separation of powers. The Brotherhood and its big base cannot be excluded or treated outside of due process. Repression, especially of a genuinely sizable, believing and passionate public group, will only lead to an explosion.

This was a popular and genuine uprising against Morsi. These were undeniably the largest ever and the most self-driven protests in Egypt's history. Nonetheless, the role of the military and its actions surely give us cause for concern, and what became of the first civilian and democratically elected president is troubling. 

I wish all of this was different, and it would have been better for Egypt. The current transition has to move wisely, but quickly. Inclusion and civil cohesion must become the cornerstone of this process. Right now, I am of greater worry than I was in February 2011.

Still, there is something utterly inspiring in seeing people rise up once more and show that they will not be taken for granted or intimidated. Of course, one has to wait and keep a vigilant eye before any final conclusions can be made about where Egypt is going.

Let us hope Egyptians never have to rise up a third time.

Bassem Sabry is a writer and Egyptian blogger who covers the region on An Arab Citizen. On Twitter: @Bassem_Sabry, email:

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