The high cost of Morsi’s presidency

Hdeel Abdelhady , Monday 1 Jul 2013

One year under President Morsi has left Egypt in a state of polarisation which, if not contained, will lead to irreparable consequences

In the lead up to President Morsi’s 26 June speech, his assistant for political affairs, Pakinam El-Sharkawy, said the "speech will offer a balance sheet" of his first year in office. With few assets to report and too many liabilities to admit, the speech was short on specifics.

At times, the "balance sheet" sounded more like a hit list – the president took aim at political opponents, some by name. By the end of his over two-and-a-half hour address, Morsi had failed to convince the Egyptian people that he was worthy of their continued investment.

Anti-Morsi protesters are now assembled across Egypt calling for his resignation. Morsi supporters are also out in force. Some claiming to defend the electoral process, they have advised demonstrators to clear the streets and resort to institutional political channels.

Under ordinary circumstances, the position of Morsi's supporters would be persuasive. But circumstances in Egypt are far from ordinary. The cost of a full Morsi presidency, if it continues on its current path, might be too high and long lasting to bear.

Morsi's presidency has nurtured an environment of political tribalism, in which supranational allegiances have already undermined Egyptian law, national unity and national identity. The development is unprecedented in Egypt, where a sense of oneness has transcended the rule of pharaohs, sultans, kings and presidents.     

In a nod to national unity, on the day his electoral victory was declared last year, Morsi announced he would represent "all Egyptians" and resigned from the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party. His actions as President have been less magnanimous.  

Morsi has moved decisively to enlarge his power at the expense of the courts, appoint governorships to cultivate political alliances, conjoin the Muslim Brotherhood's agenda with his own, and appease political competitors like the Salafist Nour Party to guard his and the Brotherhood’s standing. In contrast, his approach to social and economic challenges has been tepid.

Egypt lacks security, its currency reserves are dissipating, a food crisis looms, blackouts are frequent and petrol lines are too long.

Extraordinarily, on Morsi's watch, a dangerous factionalism is taking root. Just last week, four Egyptian Shias were killed by a Sunni mob in Giza. According to Ahram Online, Amnesty International reported that "eyewitness accounts show police officers and members of the Central Security Forces were present at the scene but failed to rescue the victims."

On 13 June, Sunni clerics meeting in Cairo issued a statement calling for "holy war" against Syria's Al-Assad regime on sectarian grounds. Notably, Egypt's Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's highest seat of learning, "refused to sign" the clerics’ statement.

On 14 June, a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman accused Shias of causing sectarian strife throughout history. On 15 June, President Morsi announced that Egypt would cut ties with the Assad regime and support a no-fly zone in the violence-wracked country.

The timing and content of Morsi's speech signalled clearly, even if implicitly, presidential support for the incendiary statements made earlier by Sunni clerics and the Brotherhood spokesman.

In the process, Morsi effectively allied himself with prior anti-Shia statements made by Salafist Nour Party members – including one of its parliamentarians who said at a Shura Council meeting that Shias represented "a danger to Egypt's national security."   

Some Egyptians have responded to calls for holy war. The Washington Post reported that one of those Egyptians, a "young and bright" man, passed up "lucrative job offers in the Persian Gulf" to fight – and die – in Syria.

According to the Post, "[w]aves of Egyptians are now preparing to follow, fired by the virulently sectarian rhetoric of Sunni preachers and encouraged by the newly permissive policies of Egypt’s Islamist government."

Clearly, the consequences of public divisiveness have been grave. Left unchecked, the long-term damage could be irreparable.

How will a future Egyptian government (even Morsi's) maintain order among Egyptians who have fought as non-state actors abroad? To what extent is the Egyptian military (and compulsory service) diminished by the creation and presence of Egyptian mercenaries within and outside of Egypt?

What official authority will persuade practiced vigilantes to abide by the law? Who will convince public figures to temper their rhetoric in the national interest, when their interests are allied elsewhere?

What is the future of national unity when defenders of the Egyptian president attend counter-protests with "builders' hard hats... and... shields and sticks in case of attack, waiting in defensive mode behind six lines of security checks"?

The upshot of Morsi’s first year in office is encapsulated by these two lines of The Washington Post story on foreign fighters in Syria: "Short on cash and facing growing internal discord, Egypt’s government is in no position to provide meaningful assistance [in Syria]. But as the Arab world's most populous nation, one with an especially high proportion of unemployed youth, Egypt has a deep well of would-be fighters." 

The Egyptian government has been weakened. Thanks to political tribalism, Egypt is poised to become an exporter of mercenaries.  

To summarise the results of the presidential balance sheet, Egypt is deep in the red.

*Hdeel Abdelhady is a lawyer and an occasional contributor to various publications on matters of law, development and politics.  

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