By Yasmine El Rashidi*, New York Review of Books, edition of February 7, 2013
One turns to many sources to understand the character of Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian president. There are his longtime fellow members in the Muslim Brotherhood, with whom he served time in Hosni Mubarak’s prison cells. (“He is steadfast, and pragmatic.”) There are his aides and advisers. (“He is a very careful listener,” “he is meticulous.”) There are his critics in the judiciary and the opposition parties. (“He is politically inept,” “he has the traits of a Pharaoh.”) There are the thousands of men and women who have taken to the streets against him. (“He is a puppet of the Brotherhood.”) And there are the ordinary people whose lives, quite by chance, have come to overlap with his. (A watermelon seller on a corner near his house told me this summer, “He has a good heart.”) There is fact and then, of course, there are the makings of political fiction.
Read also, by the same author: “ Egypt: Whose Constitution?,” January 3, 2013.
When Morsi ran for president of the republic in the spring of 2012—the second candidate of choice for the Muslim Brotherhood after their first, Khairat El-Shater, was disqualified because of a recent criminal record—few thought he had a chance. Here was a man with little of the personal appeal necessary to convince or sway, and no apparent vision save for the Al-Nahda (“Renaissance”) project that the secretive Muslim Brotherhood had prescribed as the answer to the struggles of a nation. The details of that “project” were vague, revealed only in much-repeated phrases: “job creation,” “Islam,” “economic revival,” “opportunity for youth,” “the next generation,” “Islam.” At Morsi campaign rallies you would also hear the words “religion,” “deviation,” and “redemption.”
Despite the backing of the leaders of the Brotherhood, who had proven their campaigning skills with a sweeping parliamentary win earlier in the year, Morsi’s uninspired presence pulled him down in the polls. Analysts cast his chances as shaky. Seemingly more popular were the charismatic moderate Islamist and former Muslim Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the former Mubarak minister Ahmed Shafik, and the former Arab League chief Amr Moussa.
There was also the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to factor in—it had governed Egypt since Mubarak stepped down and controlled vast economic interests that it wanted to protect. It seemed unlikely that it would allow a potential threat to those interests to take power; many people believed that the regime’s millions of civil servants would be mobilized ahead of the vote in support of the army’s candidate of choice. The Islamists had been seen as an enemy of the army ever since Gamal Abdel Nasser cracked down on them in 1965. With the fall of Mubarak, the SCAF tried to fend off a rise of Islam. In the days before the second round of the presidential election in June 2012, it issued a sweeping constitutional declaration that diminished the powers of the president-to-be.
Morsi, and his Brotherhood supporters, then, trumped them all—the other candidates, but also the special agencies and forces of the state—to clinch an office long controlled by military officers. Many theories still circulate, trying to explain how he did it. The Brotherhood, it is said, propped up the Nasserist candidate Hamdeen Sabahy to bring Morsi’s Islamist rival Aboul Fotouh down. The US government quietly decided to support the Brotherhood. The Mubarak strongman Ahmed Shafik actually won but the Brotherhood threatened mayhem and so results were fudged.
Whatever the case, Morsi’s win seemed less about his popularity and the efficiency of the Muslim Brotherhood as a campaigning machine, and more about the opposition, particularly the splintered vote of the liberal and secular and leftist factions, whose choices of candidates offered little variation in their rhetoric and plans. Up until the final moment at polling stations back in June, many people I spoke to said they were undecided. Taken together, however, the opposition candidates received a sizable chunk of the vote.
Morsi won by three percent—51.7 percent to Shafik’s 48.3—while just over half the eligible electorate of 51 million took part. His supporters these days justify his actions as taken “on behalf of the people”; but the nation was not overwhelmingly behind him and his proclaimed ideals.
Was the nation divided between those in favor of the old regime and those in favor of the Islamists? Or was it the case that millions of young Egyptians who had taken to the streets to oppose Mubarak were voting “no” to Mubarak’s Shafik, rather than “yes” to Morsi? As the prominent newspaper editor Hassanein Heikal has said at dinner parties and on TV: “It was not that people knew what they wanted and were voting for it. They simply knew what they didn’t want, and they were voting against it.” Many of my own friends—who identify themselves as liberal, secular, “revolutionary”—voted against the possibility of a return to the life we had known.
For the public, Morsi’s win will be remembered by his first speech in Tahrir Square on Friday, June 29, 2012, at 5 PM. Standing in the scorching heat amid the crowd of hundreds of thousands, it was hard to believe that an Islamist, a Muslim Brother, had become the president of Egypt. Around me were some people who genuinely believed that the Brotherhood could save Egypt, and them. But then there were others, like some of my friends who voted for Morsi, who were much more pleased by Shafik’s loss than Morsi’s victory.
The president spoke about the tasks before him—the economy, unity, jobs, youth, and the betterment of lives. There was little new to his words, little to sway those who might have been on the fence about him. But where Morsi succeeded in winning over people who might have otherwise shrugged him off as an Islamist spewing empty rhetoric was in his actions that day. The presidential podium had been carefully angled to be protected by the presidential guards and secret service and snipers. But Morsi moved spontaneously away from the podium, away from the microphone, shouting empathically as he walked across the stage, apparently unaware that the crowds could not hear a word.
We all watched as his security guards scrambled to surround him, and then as they panicked when he pushed them away and moved forward on stage toward the crowd, now with a wireless microphone in hand. He opened his blazer to the crowds, and asked them to look. He wore just a thin baby-blue shirt, with no bulletproof vest, “because,” he said, “it isn’t necessary.” He was one of them, “the people.”
Morsi won me over that day. He won over my mother too, although she’s long been wary of the Islamists. He won over many who in those moments thought he deserved a chance. After that speech, he was described, repeatedly, as “kind.” And then some weeks later, in August 2012, when he announced the “transfer,” “into early retirement,” of the top two generals of the SCAF, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and General Sami Anan, he persuaded some of those who had remained on the fence. His firing of the top generals “under the guise of retirement,” as the press observed, provoked little by way of resistance or reaction from them or the army itself. (Tantawi, it was said, wanted to retire anyway, and to have immunity from prosecution.)
The Brotherhood had long been considered the master of back-room deals, but this collusion with the army did not come in for much criticism at the time. Morsi’s getting rid of the top generals, and his annulling the constitutional declaration that had given them wide-ranging powers, were widely seen as his triumphant answer to an attempted coup by the armed forces against the presidency in June. Hours after the polls had closed in the June election, the SCAF issued a declaration giving itself legislative powers, control over the budget and the writing of the constitution, and stripping the new president of authority over the army—a move that had been criticized by both the opposition and the Brotherhood. Now the words “strong” and “capable” were being used to describe Morsi.
In late November 2012, Morsi tried to bring off a coup of his own. He granted himself unlimited powers to protect the nation and pass legislation without judicial oversight. Some said that his “bosses” in the Muslim Brotherhood knew exactly what they were doing in supporting this move and that they were well aware of the reactions it might provoke. The phrase “power grab” had been increasingly used with respect to the Brotherhood and its Islamist allies. As the months after the revolution wore on, the Brotherhood kept adding to the many posts and parliamentary seats that its leaders said they would contest or angle for. Essam El-Erian, the longtime spokesman for the Brotherhood and vice-president of its Freedom and Justice Party, first told me in April 2011 that the group would contest “20 percent” of the parliament’s seats; he later said “25 to 30 percent,” then “40 percent,” then “a majority.”
In the press you could read that the Brotherhood was engaged in one “power grab” after another—of the parliament, the cabinet, the press itself. And beginning last spring, there was another power grab during the drafting of the constitution for the new, democratic Egypt. What was meant to be a “representative” one-hundred-member Constitutional Assembly had been turned, by the Islamist-led parliament, into an Islamist-dominated one, and one in which the Islamists—the Muslim Brotherhood members but also ultra-orthodox Salafis—were trying, increasingly, to impose their own rigid, radical views.
During the summer, I chatted with the former Arab League chief Amr Moussa at his campaign villa after he lost the election. Discussing what an Islamist-led Egypt might look like, he kept, apologetically, taking phone calls. I heard him say:
We must do it….
But it’s important for the country….
I urge you, this is the starting point of collaboration….
Please, we want to have a meeting tomorrow to speak to people….
We must try….
I knew he was on the phone with Sameh Ashour, chairman of the Lawyers Syndicate, discussing the Constitutional Assembly, of which they were both members. Several members had announced they were withdrawing from it on grounds that it was “unrepresentative,” and there were murmurings about a possible boycott. Moussa, whom the Muslim Brotherhood first cast as felool (an affiliate of the former regime), was trying to rally support for the assembly. “We have to try to make it work,” he told me. “We have to give them a chance.”
On November 18, Moussa withdrew from the assembly, and before long the remaining non-Islamists had resigned as well. Moussa, Ashour, the representatives of the Coptic church, and members of the opposition and “youth revolutionaries” all cited the “lack of collaboration” from the Islamists, who they said were trying to “impose” their views. This president and his government, many also said, were doing little to preserve the revolution’s proclaimed goals—bread, freedom, and the dignity of equality for all. A protest was planned for November 23, against both the constitution and rising prices.
Just ahead of that protest, Morsi, in a constitutional decree, gave himself sweeping new executive powers. He said he did so with the intent of securing a “democratic transition” that seemed—in his view—under threat of being obstructed by the judicial bodies of the old regime in collusion with other forces. He made this declaration hours after he had been lavishly praised for mediating the Gaza cease-fire. (Hillary Clinton commended his “responsibility” and “personal leadership”). But it also came just days before the Supreme Constitutional Court was set to rule on the legitimacy of both the Islamist-dominated house of parliament and the Constitutional Assembly, from which the non-Islamists were withdrawing. It seemed almost certain that the high court would annul both. Morsi’s decree had the effect of preempting those decisions—ensuring that even if the court moved to dissolve them, he could overrule it.
Morsi’s seven-point decree had been composed with some sensitivity to the concerns of the secular opposition. It called for a reinvestigation in the cases of the murder, the attempted murder, and the wounding of protesters, as well as the crimes of terror committed against the revolutionaries by anyone who held a political or executive position under the former regime.
The decree also gave the president direct control over the government’s chief prosecutor. Morsi had fired the Mubarak-appointed chief prosecutor on October 11 and he could now choose his replacement, who would have a fixed four-year term. The controversial Article V gave Morsi even more powers than Mubarak ever had on paper. It was slipped, it appeared, into an otherwise “revolutionary” declaration, and stated simply, “No judicial body can dissolve the Shura Council [the upper house of Egyptian Parliament] or the Constituent Assembly.” The decree went on to say, “The President may take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution.”
A good many members of Morsi’s circle of advisers were quick to resign in protest against this decree. They expressed their “shock,” “frustration,” and “disappointment” in reaction both to the document itself and the fact that they hadn’t been consulted. Morsi’s vice-president—the former judge Mahmoud Mekki—said that the president “did not consult me” before announcing his decree to the public. The Supreme Judicial Council—the country’s highest body of judges—called the decree an “unprecedented assault.”
On November 23, members of the opposition—many of whom had voted for Morsi against Shafik—formed the National Salvation Front (NSF), headed by Mohamed ElBaradei. The Front included the splintered factions of the liberal and secular opposition, including Amr Moussa and Hamdeen Sabahy. That day, newspapers wrote that the “true colors” of the Brotherhood has been revealed, and they deplored “Morsi’s power grab.”
Rather than try to pacify such critics, the president announced that a draft constitution would be ready within two days, on November 29—before the Constitutional Court could annul the Islamist-dominated assembly as undemocratic. The remaining members of the assembly convened, and in a seventeen-hour televised session that began at 2:40 PM on Thursday and ended at 6:40 AM Friday, the 236 articles of the draft constitution were reviewed, revised, and voted on.
In the scramble to finish before the next working day—before there was time for the assembly to be dissolved or Morsi’s decree to be rescinded or the presidency to fall—the head of the Constitutional Assembly, Hossam al-Ghiriyani, an Islamist and career judge, impatiently pushed the members to finish, haranguing them for arguing over some of the clauses.
In one incident, which friends and I watched in a combination of horror and amazement, sixteen members of the assembly voted against a draft article, meaning it would need to be discussed. Al-Ghiriyani, flustered, said he would take a vote count again, otherwise they would be there until the morning, wasting time. The assembly voted again; this time only four members objected. The article was passed, wording unchanged. In the session’s final hours, several articles were hastily added to resolve lingering issues or disputes or requests. The resulting document was presented to the president on December 1, and the date of a referendum was set for two weeks later. At dawn on the morning of December 2—the day the Supreme Constitutional Court was to rule on the Constitutional Assembly—Islamists surrounded the court as a precautionary measure, refusing to let any of the judges in.
The Islamists’ TV channels and press called the completion of the draft constitution an “achievement,” “historic,” “an occasion,” “another step toward achieving the goals of the revolution.” The independent and opposition press described it as “an Islamist coup.” Morsi was cast both as a pawn of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau and as a knowing player in their game.
When tens and then hundreds of thousands took to the streets in protest against Morsi and his decree and the draft constitution that followed, many wondered if he had learned from Mubarak’s mistakes and would yield to the pressure and demands of the people. By early December, there were tens of thousands of protesters surrounding the presidential palace, forcing him, on the evening of December 4, to flee from a back door. The next day, at a meeting of the National Salvation Front, a roomful of several hundred listened to ElBaradei. He spoke out against “the dictatorship” the country was witnessing, and he demanded that the country’s Islamist leaders respond to the people. It was the first time since the eighteen days of the uprising that I had seen the “opposition” to the regime (this time Morsi’s regime in the place of Mubarak’s) expressing a clear, uncomplicated, unwavering conviction about the necessity of working together to bring an end to authoritarian rule. That evening, the word “Morsilini”—a take on Mussolini—was used several times.
That afternoon, when clashes broke out between Morsi’s supporters (aka Moristas) and the anti-Morsi camp, both video and much other evidence pointed clearly to Morsi’s allies as the main instigators of the violence. The president’s office remained silent. Instead, the Brotherhood spoke out—against the violence, against infiltrators, and against those trying to provoke unrest in the country. When he finally spoke, Morsi borrowed from the Brotherhood’s rhetoric. He blamed the violence on, among others, paid thugs and people trying to stir chaos and dissent: the standard regime line that was familiar from Mubarak’s days. He made no mention of the fact that his supporters—as videos revealed—had been the instigators of the attacks or had taken part in them.
Morsi seemed, in fact, somewhat oblivious to the extent of the brutality of his allies. At least seven people were killed; many were beaten and some were tortured. There were gory threats from Islamists. (I was threatened with having my throat slit.) Morsi spoke less as a president that day, and more from the vantage point of a Muslim Brother defending his own. The street protests against him grew in size but this did not faze him.
When Morsi took office last summer, the big question on people’s minds was whether he would be able to separate himself from the Brotherhood, the group that had authorized, guided, and financed his presidential campaign. Aside from his symbolic act of resignation from his post in the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, could a longtime member of a secret fraternity distance himself from the control of the Guidance Bureau without being kicked out or defamed in the way that Morsi’s Islamic rival Aboul Fotouh had been the summer before?
By this winter, the public seemed to accept the fact that there was no alternative to Morsi’s Brotherhood running the show. As a source close to the Brotherhood’s leaders told me, “Morsi is simply overseeing the presidential portfolio on behalf of the Supreme Guide’s Office, and so in negotiating with him you are simply speaking to a messenger.” For many, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, for all its defects, seemed to be the lesser of two evils. In the lead-up to the referendum, as political tensions were high and protests continued, talk of a civil war seemed to be everywhere. I kept hearing, repeatedly, people “pray” for an intervention by the army.
On December 11, I went to a local sporting club where retired ministers and officials are often found around the pool. A former Interior Ministry chief warned a circle of keen listeners—of whom my father was one—that the Interior Ministry could no longer contain the situation and that the army would be forced to intervene. I was told later that the interior minister had met with the defense minister and told him as much. That afternoon, the army made its appearance, putting out a call and invitation on Facebook to hold a meeting for a “national dialogue” the following day. The president’s office reacted, saying the invitation was a rumor. The army responded that the president would be attending. The president’s office said he wouldn’t. The army responded by changing the wording—they were inviting Morsi to a “humanitarian dialogue” and “luncheon.” Eventually the president’s office said Morsi would be attending “given that the invitation had come upon counsel from him.” Politics would not be discussed, and lunch would be served.
The next afternoon, the meeting was canceled. The Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood had intervened. For him, it was not tolerable that the armed forces should be seen as capable of gathering together all factions, including the president, in a national dialogue, while the president himself had utterly failed to do the same. At the state TV and radio building that day, a reporter told me that the media’s hands were increasingly tied:
It’s no different from when Mubarak was in power. The red lines of what we can say and can’t say are being redrawn. Instead of Mubarak, now it’s Morsi. We know that it was the Supreme Guide who gave orders for the lunch to be canceled. We know there is a tension between the army and Brotherhood, but we can’t say that.
A few weeks later, after the second round of the referendum took place on December 22, and the constitution was approved, the Supreme Elections Committee refused to say that there were elections violations that warranted investigation. The committee dismissed 15,000 reported violations. The referendum—in which there was a turnout of just 30 percent in a vote that gave 64 percent approval to Morsi’s constitution—was declared by the committee to be “impartial and fair.” It was not until five days after Morsi had signed the new constitution, putting it into effect, that it was reported that the elections committee was “beginning” inquiry into the 15,000 reports of fraud.
Morsi, it seemed clear, had passed the constitution that the Islamists had wanted. He then handpicked the outstanding ninety members of the Shura Council—the upper house of parliament—who were given legislative powers until a new parliament would be elected. Although he promised that his choices would be “representative,” the majority, again, were Islamists. The public was now used to this. “We got rid of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP), and replaced it with the Brotherhood,” Ibrahim Eissa wrote in the newspaper El-Tahir.
Protesters against Morsi’s rule at a demonstration outside the presidential palace, Cairo, December 7, 2012. The flag at right shows Mina Daniel, a young Copt activist who was killed in clashes outside the State TV building in October.
When Morsi swore in the newly appointed members of the Shura Council—in a televised speech on December 29—the atmosphere recalled the days of Mubarak. Pavements were freshly painted on the route that he would take to the downtown building. Bushy green trees were planted. Graffiti were whitewashed. For “reasons of security” employees from the nearby Ministry of Health were told to leave the building.
Morsi was facing a crisis. His vice-president had resigned; his ministers were resigning (allegedly over negotiations about cabinet posts); his former advisers were issuing public statements saying the nation had been severely let down. The Egyptian pound was weakening, the Central Bank governor tried to resign, and Egyptians everywhere had began to speak of despair. The words “grieving,” “grief,” and “mourning” seemed to appear with increasing frequency on Facebook posts and Twitter feeds. On the streets, I began to hear more and more people refer to the good old days that were now gone. Unemployment and prices were up, traffic was worse, and garbage seemed to be everywhere. Parked cars were now being stolen daily and held for ransom.Not to mention the recently passed constitution that the opposition still insisted it would contest.
Despite all this, Morsi gave a speech much like the ones he had given before—he insisted that those who spoke of Egypt going bankrupt were, in fact, bankrupt themselves. The opposition press dismissed what he said as “a waste of time.” The state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram, long a mouthpiece of Mubarak’s men and now under the tutelage of an Islamist, ran banner headlines in praise of his words. But on social media sites and in the opposition press, the speeches of both Mubarak and Morsi were cut and pasted, side-by-side. The only real differences, aside from the mention of Allah, seemed to be grammatical ones.
It is a sign of things to come that the Shura Council that Morsi swore in is largely a mirror of his government, and that the first laws the council are considering govern the parliamentary elections to take place this spring, and also include draft legislation to regulate protests and strikes. Already the Islamists have encroached on the main executive and legislative bodies of the state, and the Shura Council is working, as its first action, to amend the parliamentary elections law in order to eliminate the technical provisions that caused the last Islamist-dominated parliament to be dissolved. They want a majority there too.
The Brotherhood, in its highly organized way, is already preparing for the parliamentary elections. Various factions of Islamists are forming and rebuilding parties with an eye to another sweeping victory. Amid all this, ElBaradei’s NSF seems somewhat pallid—not firm in defining policies or planning political action, and not visible enough as a campaign force among the masses. There have been signs that in a turbulent future, the army may become more involved in politics. We hear, for example, persistent rumors that the Brotherhood seeks to give a part of the Sinai to the Palestinians—a “plan” that allegedly involves Qatari funds. In December, the defense minister issued a military decree restricting the ownership of “strategic areas” (such as the Sinai) to Egyptians. In a military statement, the minister said: “Sinai will remain a part of our beloved Egypt, and the army will never allow it to be threatened.”
The day after the Shura Council speech, while I was talking to a well-known businessman at a sporting club, he excused himself to take a call from a client. “Yes,” he said, “I’ll give you power of attorney.”
He hung up and muttered the name of a leading Brotherhood family. “It’s no longer about Morsi,” he said. “They’re running for the elections of the board of Marina”—a large-scale north coast beach resort.
They’re the best clients these days—they’re in control of so much of the business. You can’t really tell them “no” anymore, even if they want control of our beaches. And the reality is that they are creeping up, and want control of everything. It’s not about Egypt, it’s about their larger vision for an Islamic Caliphate. And the problem is that they don’t know how to play politics. They make a deal, and then manipulate or break it, and then swear to God that you are the one in the wrong.
—January 10, 2013
* Yasmine El Rashidi is the author of The Battle for Egypt: Dispatches from the Revolution, and a contributing editor to the Middle East arts and culture quarterly Bidoun. She lives in Cairo. She has published five articles on Egypt in the New York Review of Books.