Mohamed Morsi, Inept Bumbler

by Benjamin Studebaker

In the western press, it is common to perceive Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi’s recent declaration of sweeping authority as a shrewd power grab by the newest regional autocrat. In light of the most recent development–Morsi revoking his despised decree–it occurs to me that perhaps the west has been too quick to assume malevolence on Morsi’s part. What we have here is not a man seizing power through cleverness and guile. Instead we have a bumbling oaf who lacks the political nuance to effectively govern Egypt and who has not made clever moves, but a series of disastrous missteps, the consequences of which could be severe.

Morsi did not issue his decree with the aim of establishing himself permanently as a dictator in Egypt. His aim was to overcome resistance from Egypt’s judges, most of whom were appointed by Mubarak and remained hostile to the revolution and to the new regime. This aim in and of itself was not a bad strategic move. The judges were entrenched and unmoving; they were obstructing the writing of the new constitution and proving a serious hindrance to the revolution’s aims, which Morsi is, as the elected president, responsible for pushing.

The trouble is that Morsi expected the Egyptian people, 30% of which remain illiterate and 12.5% of which remain unemployed (and consequently impatient and angry–it was the unemployed youths who toppled Mubarak), to understand this complex legal motivation. Instead what happened is that the simplest interpretation of Morsi’s move is the one that prevailed: “Morsi has seized more powers because Morsi is a dictator” is easier to understand than “Morsi has seized more powers as a temporary move to circumnavigate the judiciary so that the democratic constitution can move forward”. The result was widespread protests among the less informed segments of the population combined with deliberate agitation from supporters of the old regime and opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood. The western press, most of which is not particularly astute about the particulars of Egypt and has not kept a very close eye on the goings on there, happily bought into the “another Middle Eastern country falls to a dictator” story, feeding into international condemnation, encouraging those protesting against Morsi, and further undermining the decree.

So Morsi’s first mistake was to overestimate the Egyptian people’s capacity to understand the political nuances of the move he was making. To this point, this interpretation was challengeable–you could claim, as many in the western press did, that the new constitution would end up just reconfirming the decree, that Morsi really was a clever political savant, and that the rest of us were being insufficiently cynical. What makes it clear that Morsi was not trying to be a new pharoah is the newest development, his cowardly retraction of the decree in the face of international and domestic pressure. While the decree itself proved unwise, given the reaction it engendered, the retraction of the decree is the more disastrous move because it:

  1. Defeats the positive result of the decree, the circumventing of the Mubarak judiciary
  2. Fails to resolve the negative result of the decree, the decline in Morsi’s popularity

The decree was a bad move because it created widespread opposition to Morsi that countervailed the help it provided in circumventing the judges. Eliminating the decree is a worse move because it is having no discernible impact on public opinion and so it does not remove the negative consequence of the original decree while simultaneously removing the positive result. So instead of having Morsi lose popularity but beat the judges, we now have Morsi losing popularity and losing to the judges. The result is a situation that is worse for Morsi on both fronts–he is less popular than before, and he has only further retrenched judicial opposition. This result is the worst possible outcome for Morsi and it is fundamentally of his own making. He thought the decree would not see a backlash; it did. He thought that revoking the decree would rescue public opinion; it has not and it will not.

This is a leader who issued a decree in deep ignorance of how it would be perceived and then revoked it out of panic in the deranged hope that it was an action he could take back without consequence. He comes away from the situation looking like a weak, bumbling oaf. The message is sent to his political enemies, of which he has many (not merely Mubarak loyalists, but secularists and other opponents of his political faction, the Muslim Brotherhood)–he is vulnerable to public pressure, he is naive, he is prone to error. If you like Morsi and you like the Muslim Brotherhood, this has to concern you deeply, because your leader does not seem to know what he is doing. It is one thing to bumble and be gaffe-prone in a relatively stable country, it is quite another to make those kinds of errors in a volatile situation like Egypt where the legitimacy and stability of the current order is extremely fragile.

All of this means that Morsi’s constitution, which remains scheduled to face a referendum on December 15th, is vulnerable to voter rejection and indeed has been made so by Morsi’s own actions. Much of the opposition, now no longer focused on the decree, is shifting to the constitution itself which, while no panacea (it is most similar to the Pakistani constitution, which is not saying much in its favour), still offered some substantial improvements over the presently existent legal framework (the judges, for their part, were attempting to obstruct the referendum). The net result will likely be one of the following:

  1. The defeat of the constitution in the referendum
  2. The rejection of the referendum by the judges
  3. The full capitulation of Morsi to the protesters and the delay of the referendum while the constitution is changed

For Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, all three of these outcomes are disastrous, and they have only Morsi to blame should one of them come to pass.

Personally, I would very much like to see some big changes to the Egyptian constitution. I think it’s insufficiently secular, it permits too much power to the Egyptian military, and it will likely lead to problems similar to those experienced in Pakistan. The long term likely outcome is, in my opinion, a military coup similar to Musharraf’s. That said, this piece is not about what is best for Egypt, it is about whether or not Morsi is a man of clever malevolence, adept at getting his way, or a man of gross incompetence, who makes a shambles of his projects. The latter is most certainly the case, and the Muslim Brotherhood finds itself in deep trouble as a result.