When Mohamed Morsi took office in the summer of 2012, there were great expectations placed on his shoulders. This was only natural: he was Egypt’s first democratically elected president, representing the organisation with the broadest public support in the country – the Muslim Brotherhood.
But his first major move made people draw comparisons between the new and the ancien régime. In November last year, Morsi signed a constitutional declaration that strengthened his own powers and forbade courts from striking down his decisions. Public protests reached revolutionary heights and the declaration was at last rescinded in December, but it planted a seed of fear among Egyptians that their new president might be of the exact same model as their last one.
Of course, this is the most obvious proof supporting anti-Morsi protestors’ theory saying that Morsi is becoming Mubarak. However, there are more subtle examples not making the headlines, including how Morsi is using the media, how the regime is supposedly hiring street thugs to break up peaceful anti-government demonstrations and the rumoured conspiracy surrounding the convictions at the Port Said tragedy trial.
Morsi has struggled with the public opinion of him being the “spare-tyre president”, a name he received because he was not particularly well-known before the elections. Morsi entered the presidential race late when the Brotherhood feared that their first candidate, Khairat al-Shater, would be disqualified because of his criminal convictions. When the choice stood between Morsi and Ahmad Shafik, the ex-prime minister of the Mubarak regime, the choice of president was easy for many.
However, when the Association of Foreign Affairs traveled to Cairo recently, we heard a lot of public complaints about Morsi. One night, when the power in our hostel went out our hostel manager claimed that the shutting off of electricity in certain areas is the fault of Morsi. When we visited a debate between opposition parties, chants saying yasqot, yasqot hukm al-Morsi (down with Morsi’s regime) were frequent.
This display of anger against the Egyptian president can most probably be traced to the disappointment many feel towards the direction that the country is taking. Many people, even anti-Muslim Brotherhood and secularists, trusted Morsi with their votes. Morsi represented change, especially when put on the stand against Shafik in the elections, and many have started to regret voting for him.
One group that was skeptic already before the elections was Egypt’s Coptic community, and unfortunately their concerns have proved motivated. Even though Morsi condemned the tragic events at a Coptic funeral in the beginning of April, he was criticized by the Coptic pope for talking rather than taking action. Youssef Sidhom, the editor in chief of newspaper Watani and himself a Copt, said during UPF’s visit at his office that Morsi is applying the same methods on the Copts as Mubarak.
The polarization in Egyptian society – tragically symbolized by the clashes at the Coptic funeral – is perhaps Morsi’s biggest failure. Egypt is so divided that discussion about the smallest affair might turn into conflict. Egypt stands before several enormous challenges: ethnic violence, rocketing sexual harassment rates, women’s empowerment, human rights, poverty, a struggling economy and an uncertain IMF-loan. According to the opposition, Morsi is not willing to address any of these issues and does not have a plan on how to move the country forward. The inability to decide whether or not Egypt should accept the IMF-deal is a clear example of this, and has raised questions on how Morsi makes decisions. Some argue that Morsi has surrounded himself with yea-sayers and is acting mostly upon ideology rather than clear-headed policy.
The polarization of Egyptian society is, however, not completely Morsi’s fault, even if this is the view of the Egyptian opposition. In truth, the opposition bears just as much responsibility, since they have failed at proposing a better plan for the Egyptian people. Instead, they have been focusing on pointing out Morsi’s errors when they have had the chance to present their own solutions. When Morsi changed the constitution and gave himself greater powers, his argument was that this was a necessary step in order to prosecute the enemies of the revolution, the enemies being the old remains of the Mubarak-regime – a rhetoric placing Morsi in the company of many, non-democratically elected, autocrats.
It is almost ironic how Egypt’s most prominent opposition movement, a movement that never sought power because democratic victory was never possible, has approached the same kind of authoritarianism that they contested peacefully for such a long time. As Mark Lynch at Foreign Policy points out, the Brotherhood started to change right at the time of revolution, making more room for the old guard of hard-line conservatives with less acceptance for different opinions and ill-equipped at leading the country during atransition to democracy.
In the middle of this mess, we find Mohamed Morsi leading the country with either a shaky indecisive hand or an iron fist – we really don’t know yet. Morsi has not yet become Mubarak, but unfortunately there is nothing stopping him from doing so. The opposition calling for an overthrow would do better burying their harsh criticism (even though Morsi deserves it) and instead dig up the national dialogue which has been buried since Morsi took power. The risk of Morsi turning into an autocrat is best prevented with dialogue between government and opposition and through a cleaner national debate.
When Gil Scott-Heron cried out that the revolution would not be televised, he was wrong in the case of Egypt. But his last words in the same piece proved him right: “the revolution will be live”. The revolution is live, and to many Egyptians the revolution is still ongoing. With the barrier of fear broken two years ago, they will never accept another autocrat, and they are Egypt’s best hope.