Special Report

Egypt’s Islamist Autocrat

Mohammed Morsi is hardly the bumbler he was initially thought to be.

By 11.26.12

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When Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) first became president of Egypt, many commentators imagined that power in Egypt was still firmly in the hands of the military and the then head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.

As Daniel Pipes and Cynthia Farahat wrote, "Tantawi…had handpicked Morsi to become president, seeing him as the safest option, someone who could be manipulated or (if necessary) replaced…[He] wanted the obscure, inelegant and epileptic Morsi to run for president because Shater [the original MB candidate] was too dangerous and another Brotherhood candidate- Abdel Moneim Aboul Fettouh, too popular."

In this view, Morsi was a mere bumbling, clueless idiot, rather like the Emperors of the last twenty years or so of the Western Roman Empire (c. AD 456-476), when the Emperor was no more than a figurehead for whoever was magister militum ("master of the soldiers" -- i.e., head of the army) at the time, and could be done away with if he seemed to be exercising too much independent authority.

Pipes and Farahat are of course correct that Morsi's obscurity prior to the presidential elections is important to consider here, but it is not the case that Tantawi "handpicked" Morsi for president.

Rather, when one considers his obscurity, and the fact that the Supreme Constitutional Court prior to the election had just blocked a law passed by the parliament that barred Mubarak-era officials from running for office, and had ordered the dissolution of the parliament on the grounds of the unconstitutional election of a third of its MPs, it is clear that the military was confident of a victory for Ahmed Shafik -- a well-known official from the Mubarak era.

With the election of Morsi, however, the MB had essentially put the military on the defensive, and it was probably at that point hoping for some kind of "constitutional settlement" with Morsi in which it would direct matters of national security and foreign affairs, while the president would be given general autonomy in management of domestic matters, particularly the pressing economic crisis.

Even so, Morsi comes from an Islamist background that had been repressed for many years in Egypt. The natural consequence of this conditioning is a perceived need to consolidate one's power -- not only for the sake of pressing forward with one's agenda but also shoring up one's position in a zero-sum game of politics against supposed coup attempts.

Morsi was also well aware of the fate of Hosni Mubarak, who had been ousted by the military that rode the wave of popular discontent and mass protests at the start of 2011.

Accordingly, Morsi began his consolidation of power in August by dismissing Tantawi, putting in his place a virtual client, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who was head of military intelligence. In this move, Morsi had the support of the intelligence services and the Ministry of the Interior.

This first step by Morsi should be noted in comparison with Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose Islamic Dawa party had been banned and violently suppressed under Saddam, and the Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who prior to leading the AKP had been a member of the Islamist Welfare Party, which was the largest party in the coalition government under Necmettin Erbakan, before being forced out of power by the military in 1997 and subsequently banned.

Both Maliki and Erdogan have, like Morsi, initially focused on the military to consolidate power. In Maliki's case, there has been the filling of the ranks of the military hierarchy with loyalists, and a decentralization of the command structure to prevent a single general from garnering sufficient support to oust him in a coup.

In Turkey, the Erdogan government has arrested and jailed numerous officers on charges of coup plots, such that the military has in effect been sidelined in Turkish politics.

Nonetheless, Morsi has now gone much further than Maliki and Erdogan in his assumption of what Agence France-Presse terms "sweeping powers." Articles II and VI of Morsi's new constitutional declaration most openly reflect dictatorial designs.

Article II makes all of Morsi's "previous constitutional declarations, laws and decrees" -- and future rulings until the constitution is approved and a new People's Assembly elected -- immune from being annulled by any body, while Article VI allows Morsi to "take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution."

While he may have sidelined the military in August the most important context for Morsi's latest autocratic move is the anti-Islamist opposition he still faces in the judiciary. Egypt is still in the process of establishing a new constitution with its Constituent Assembly, and the Muslim Brotherhood has repeatedly insisted on the maintenance of the Shura Council (upper parliament).

Both the Constituent Assembly and the Shura Council -- dominated by Islamists -- have faced criticism for not sufficiently representing secularists and members of minorities like the Copts. Thus we also have Article V, which prohibits any judicial body from dissolving the Shura Council or Constituent Assembly.

Unsurprisingly, Morsi has been heavily criticized by senior members of the judiciary for his unilateral power grab, and here there is a clear contrast with the approach of Maliki, who -- rather than attempting to openly defy the judiciary as Morsi has done -- instead has placed numerous judges sympathetic to him in the courts. Increasing government control over the judiciary has likewise been the approach of Erdogan and the AKP in Turkey.

Anticipating the discontent in the street his constitutional declaration would inspire, Morsi has clothed his move in a populist garb, portraying himself as the protector of the "revolution" and ordering the retrial of those accused "of the murder, the attempted murder and the wounding of protestors as well as crimes of terror committed against the revolutionaries… under the former regime" (Article I).

On a related note, as Bassem Sabry points out, "the president issued expansions of the pensions for injured revolutionary protestors and widened the net of recipients."

In this context, something needs to be said about a line of thought -- first suggested to me by friend and occasional co-author Oskar Svadkovsky -- that suggests that Morsi's constitutional declaration is tied to Egypt's recent signing of a loan deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in an attempt to solve the country's economic crisis.

As part of this agreement, the Egyptian government will have to introduce substantial reductions in subsidies. Such a measure could provoke considerable resentment and popular protest -- as illustrated by the recent wave of demonstrations in Jordan, whose government cut fuel subsidies.

The IMF agreement has already aroused considerable opposition in Egypt.

As Bikya Masr reports, earlier this month, a coalition of 17 political parties, NGOs, and human rights organizations called for an end to negotiations with the IMF. Morsi has also come under repeated fire from Salafists, who see a loan request as incompatible with the Islamic prohibition on usury.

With his constitutional declaration, Morsi can prevent a rescinding of the loan deal and also rally behind him Islamists who might oppose the IMF agreement, focusing their attention instead on those perceived to be the real enemy -- namely, the secularists and liberals in Egypt.

In short, Morsi's constitutional declaration can be regarded as an illustration of his desire to push forward with the IMF loan agreement, and such a motive is by no means mutually exclusive with his hardline autocratic tendencies, rooted as they are in his Islamist background.

At the same time it is evident that his power grab is only further polarizing a country that saw a fairly close competition for the presidency between Morsi and a non-Islamist rival. Significant unrest and major clashes at the ground level, which are nevertheless unlikely to pose any real threat to Morsi's power, look set to remain a staple of the Egyptian political scene into next year.

If I could choose one analyst who best predicted the direction Egypt is heading, I would go with Martin Kramer. As he succinctly put it after Morsi's election: "The simple truth is that Egypt isn't going to revert to military rule. Egypt is headed toward populist Islamist rule, and it is just a matter of time before the Brotherhood checkmates its opponents." Prophetic words indeed, though I doubt many commentators would concede Kramer was right all along.

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About the Author
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University. His website is http://www.aymennjawad.org.