Egypt’s President Morsi, Firmly Behind the Wheel


In his excellent Middle East travelogue, “Baghdad Without a Map and Other Misadventures in Arabia,” Tony Horwitz writes:

“In Egypt, aggression and impatience are frowned upon. The unofficial Egyptian anthem, ‘Bokra, Insha’allah, Malesh’ (‘Tomorrow, God Willing, Never Mind’), isn’t just an excuse for laziness. In a society requiring millennial patience, it is also a social code dictating that no one make too much of a fuss about things.”

This sentiment seemed alive and well in Cairo as Mohammed Morsi was sworn in as Egypt’s president last month. Not even the first choice of the Islamist Group, the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi was widely viewed as an accidental president of sorts, and therefore destined to be a figurehead president. It was widely believed that real power would continue to reside, as it always had, in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces—or SCAF.

But early last week, Morsi took everyone by surprise—including the United States. In a lightning-fast series of maneuvers and brokered deals that would make Machiavelli proud, Morsi removed his political and military rivals, and nullified a constitutional decree that gave the military council ultimate authority over Egypt’s administration, security and, significantly, the government’s purse strings.

Simultaneously, Morsi issued a constitutional edict granting himself full authority over the executive and legislative branches of government. Knowing a bridge too far when he saw one, he left the judiciary alone. To preempt any potential dissent from the judiciary, Morsi appointed reformist senior judge Mahmoud Mekki as his vice president.

The ostensible catalyst for the shakeup was the killing of 16 Egyptian soldiers in northern Sinai earlier in the week, but it seems obvious that this was only a convenient excuse for actions already planned. Morsi quickly exploited the incident, and replaced his defense minister, the army chief of staff and each of the service chiefs.

It is the moral equivalent of a U.S. president firing his Secretary of Defense and all of his Joint Chiefs of Staff in one fell swoop.

Morsi’s stunning consolidation of power followed a sequence that caught the occupants of Washington’s “C” suites and cabinet secretaries completely off-guard. Reluctant to admit a lack of advance knowledge of Marsi’s power-play, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said:

“We obviously did know that there were discussions ongoing about a new defense team — with regard to the precise timing, less so.”

In retrospect, the move should have been fully anticipated. The obvious historical examples of past presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarek are clear evidence that staying power in Egyptian politics requires strength. Morsi was understandably motivated to reclaim the political power that the military had seized in the wake of the Arab Spring uprising last year.

To calm those at home and abroad, Morsi delivered a radio address, insisting,

“I never meant to antagonize anyone… We go on to new horizons, with new generations, with new blood that has long been awaited.”

Assuming an apparent wait-and-see posture, the White House has yet to offer any substantive reaction to Morsi’s dramatic power-grab, except to issue non-specific diplomatic statements about “shared interests” and the new appointees being “well known” to them.

Their silence on the real issues at hand is what’s so significant. Indeed, if the aim of the White House’s long-range goal was Egypt’s “full transition to civilian rule,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has articulated it, the end result has been hardly worthy of celebration. Any vision of a secular democracy in Egypt has been relegated to virtual-mirage status.

While the administration would like to calmly portray Morsi as doing what is necessary to place Egypt back on the road to democracy, it should be worried. Morsi’s actions point to a far more ominous course now underway.

A judge in Egypt’s Higher Constitutional Court (HCC), immediately responded to Morsi’s actions, saying, “A president does not have the power to abrogate a constitution, even a temporary one….”

With his newfound authorities in place, and with the ability to rewrite the new constitution, the process of Islamizing Egypt’s domestic policy is almost sure to follow.

Despite Morsi’s personal assurance to media chiefs that press freedom would not be restricted, actions to suppress media criticism against Morsi are now fully underway. The day after Morsi’s “Sunday Coup,” police attempted to confiscate all copies of newspapers critical of the Muslim Brotherhood and suspended the broadcast license of a television station that has actively criticized Morsi in the past. Last week, Egypt’s upper house of parliament appointed new editors for the country’s 50 state-run newspapers, effectively placing the media under Brotherhood control.

Morsi now has control of all executive and legislative levers of powers, and has reinforced his authority by imposing control of the media. In such an environment, and given the stated long-term goals of the Muslim Brotherhood, the implications for Israel’s security and the future of the Camp David Accords are obvious.

To even the casual observer of Egyptian politics, Morsi is now fully in the driver’s seat as president. As such, Horowitz’s continued observations of the “Bokra, Insha’allah, Malesh” anthem seems entirely, metaphorically, relevant:

“Egyptians undergo an odd personality change behind the wheel of a car. …But put an Egyptian in the driver’s seat, and he shows all the calm and consideration of a hooded swordsman delivering Islamic justice.”

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