Egyptians were the pride of the modern world when they overthrew their dictator in January, 2011. They proved to us that the cry for freedom and liberty was universal. That Arabs and Muslims were no different from others. Hopes were raised, but now the democratic dream is coming apart before our eyes as millions demonstrate against the Morsy government in Egypt. Is it too late to save Egypt’s democracy?
Popular protests are the sign of a robust democracy. But the change in an elected government should be at the ballot box, not through mob violence.
Torching Muslim Brotherhood offices, attacking their leaders’ homes and killing their activists is no way to oppose an elected president. Granted, the secular opposition forces in Egypt have genuine grievances. Morsy started his reign a year ago promising to appoint a female vice president and a Coptic Christian deputy. He failed to deliver on both counts, sending negative signals to Egypt’s Christian communities and neglecting gender parity.
Morsy’s team has been keen to show photos of him leading prayers at the palace more often than signing new trade and investment agreements. It is this failure to improve the lives of ordinary people — in fact, making their lives worse since the revolution — that has allowed the opposition to mobilize millions on the streets.
I have visited Egypt regularly since the revolution, and heard from people from across society about why they were still willing to give Morsy a chance. They said they understood it took time to reverse the decay of Mubarak’s four decades. But they were not prepared for long queues outside gas stations, frequent electricity cuts, deaths in train accidents, and the steep decline in tourism, Egypt’s economic lifeline.
Incompetence at the top was proven when the government declared a tax increase to match IMF requirements and then reversed the decision on Facebook in the wee hours of the night.
Egyptians are a proud people — they may protest through Facebook, but do not expect to be governed by declarations on it. They are accustomed to being governed by well-spoken, strong presidential figures in Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. Morsy has not been in command of his script when speaking in public, nor in control of his government’s agenda, assuming he has one.
Morsy’s many mistakes outdo his limited achievements. Yes, he instituted the country’s new constitution, but it was done through an executive power grab with no judicial or parliamentary oversight. With the secular and liberal opposition forces isolated, Morsy and his broadly Islamist and Salafist supporters rammed through a hodgepodge constitution.
The claims and counter-claims in Egyptian politics, the blame and counter-blame, are incessant. But what’s next? Bringing millions into the streets is impressive, but it is not a strategy for improving lives, or for creating the political stability that is required for economic prosperity. The tourists will not return, nor will international investment, so long as Egypt is drawing negative global headlines.
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Morsy came to power through the ballot box, and should only be removed by it — not through popular protests or a military coup. If Morsy were to resign, it is not clear who would succeed him. And in a year’s time, with protesters’ appetites whetted for new political heads to roll, we will be back in the same position of demands for new rulers.
With all his faults, and despite government resignations all around him, Morsy deserves more time in office. U.S. President Barack Obama was right not to call for his resignation. But more time in office cannot be full of mistakes like those of the last year.
First, Morsy’s team needs to stop treating the opposition with arrogance and contempt. In an ideal world, the secular opposition leaders would be more constructive and accommodating. But you have to fight a battle with the soldiers you have, not the ones you want. Morsy needs to have the likes of opposition figures such as Mohamed ElBaradei, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fatouh, Hamdeen Sabbahi, and others around a table in a nationally televised dialogue.
The opposition needs to stand away from brinkmanship. The zero-sum game must end. It harms Egypt, and ordinary Egyptians.
Second, Morsi needs to speak out in public, and stick to his script in humility (no off-the-cuff remarks in colloquial Arabic), asking the Egyptian protesters for more time in government. Contrition from the president and a clearer vision can help sooth ordinary protesters. It needs to be a straightforward message that accepts past mistakes and lays out realistic promises to solve fuel shortages, power cuts, delays in instituting a parliament, and conflict with Egypt’s judiciary, however difficult.
Third, Egypt’s armed forces must stop flirting with protesters. In a democracy, the military answers to an elected civilian leadership. That culture is not yet instituted among the Egyptian generals. At the same time that Morsy is making concessions and promising deliverables on television, the generals should be stopping their ultimatums to their president.
Fourth, failing all of the above, Morsy needs to call early presidential elections and renew his legitimacy at a referendum. If the secular opposition wants a new president, let’s see who they can offer to the Egyptian people. The Muslim Brotherhood may not support Morsy as their candidate, again. It remains to be seen.
Amid the instability in Egypt, blaming the United States has been easy but ultimately meaningless. Conspiracy theories of U.S. control may be cathartic to some, but they produce little to improve the country. Egypt’s military, judiciary, media, and secular opposition leaders have blocked Morsy repeatedly. These were not U.S. actions. The mess in Egypt is of Egyptian making, but the solutions also lie within Egypt. Will Morsy rise to the challenge and unite a divided nation?