Argument

King Boris

Could Boris Johnson, the ridiculous yet charming mayor of London, really go on to lead Britain?

Click here for a colorful year in the life of Boris Johnson. 

What a difference a year makes. Last August, London was ablaze and convulsed by riots. Across large swathes of the British capital, police appeared content to surrender control of the streets to rioting youths who looted and pillaged until they could loot and pillage no more. Commentators, both domestic and international, wondered how it had come to this. Something, though it was not quite clear just what, had gone badly wrong in Britain. The city's mayor, Boris Johnson, later shrugged off criticism, claiming the police had done "a fantastic job" -- a view shared by few.

Fast forward to this August and London has presented a far different face to the world. Barring any last minute mishaps, these Olympic Games have been a tremendous success. London has been en fête and, for a few weeks at least, Britain is at ease with itself. Britons, naturally a grumbling people, have gone goofy for the Olympics and there's a palpable feel-good factor across the land. And the sun has even come out, on occasion.

Though the right to host the games was won by Tony Blair's Labour government and though Prime Minister David Cameron once hoped the games (plus economic growth) would kick-start his re-election campaign in 2015, the politician who has gained most from the Olympics is London's mayor, Boris Johnson.

Boris -- the only politician who has a first-name-only relationship with the electorate -- once described his prospects of ever becoming prime minister as being "only slightly better than my chances of being decapitated by a Frisbee, blinded by a champagne cork, locked in a disused fridge, or reincarnated as a olive." But, basking in an Olympic glow, and with Cameron's Conservative-led coalition government liable -- as matters stand at present -- to lose the next election, the once-improbable idea that Boris might actually succeed Cameron as Conservative leader is now being taken seriously in London.

And yet Boris continues to insist that he's not a contender. This week, he told breakfast television that, "I think it is inconceivable that I am going to be prime minister. At the moment, I certainly don't want to be prime minister." As denials go, "at the moment" is less than Shermanesque. But Britons indulge eccentricity and admire self-deprecation. When the mayor was photographed dangling helplessly from a zip wire last week, Boris turned a potentially embarrassing photograph to his advantage. "I think the brakes got stuck," he quipped. He then followed it up watching himself on television with, "How could anybody elect a prat who gets stuck in a zip wire?"

But Boris doth protest too much -- and he knows it too. It was one thing when he was elected minister of Parliament for the rock-solid Conservative seat of Henley, but quite another when this mere "entertainer" somehow managed to be elected mayor of one of the world's greatest cities. Not once, but twice. Few people at Westminster believe Boris's ambitions have yet been sated. It is considered a matter of when and how, not if, he returns to the House of Commons.

His relationship with prime minister is a bit uneasy. "If any other politician was stuck on a zip wire it would be a disaster," said Cameron. "For Boris, it's an absolute triumph." Though contemporaries at Oxford (and each members of the Bullingdon Club, a now notorious aristocratic drinking club), Boris is seen as a dangerous, unpredictable, free agent by Cameron's supporters. It is good, they say, that London's mayor is a Conservative; it would be better if the mayor were someone more reliable. Or, as one of his former colleagues somewhat less decorously told writer Iain Martin, Boris is "shallow, duplicitous, selfish, sociopathic, scheming."

Those close to Cameron remember Boris's reaction to being sacked as a Tory spokesman for the arts (for lying about an extra-marital affair): "My friends, as I have discovered myself, there are no disasters, only opportunities. And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters." This is seen, in some parts of the Tory party, as a prophecy for what life might be like were Boris ever to actually become leader. If Boris is the answer, runs this theory, what kind of godforsaken question is being asked?

Nevertheless, many Tory MPs are increasingly disenchanted with Cameron's leadership. This week, one complained that "Some of us now fear that people are more interested in leading the coalition than leading the party they were elected to lead." With economic growth forecasts downgraded yet again and the coalition seemingly crippled by internal squabbling over matters as arcane as reforming the House of Lords and redrawing constituency boundaries, Cameron's government urgently needs reviving. Even the Olympics cannot mask or make-up for the pain of Austerity Britain.

That leaves Boris as the prince across the water, presently exiled at the mayor's office but waiting for the call to return. Where Cameron must seek consensus with his Liberal Democratic coalition partners, Boris can preach the anti-Europe, supply-side Thatcherite gospel that still thrills the Tory base. And Boris has the ability to thrill the faithful; he can reach parts of the conservative id that Cameron will never conquer. Even his more problematic views -- such as defending bankers at a time when doing so is rarely either popular or profitable -- are forgiven. It's just Boris being Boris.

His critics ask "what has he done?" and it's a fair question: His mayoralty is perhaps best known for the provision of a city-wide bike-share scheme. (Typically, the bicycles are known to all as "Boris Bikes.") They ask -- and struggle to avoid a sneer when doing so -- "is he serious?" Does he have the policy chops to actually deliver? Mayor of London is a grand title, but the mayor actually enjoys fewer powers than his counterparts in New York City, Los Angeles, or Chicago. But the title and the podium it presents just might be enough. As Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher's official biographer and a former editor of the Spectator and Daily Telegraph, observed last week, "conventional politics is now failing more comprehensively than at any time since the 1930s, and ... Boris Johnson is the only unconventional politician in the field."

Quite so. What other politician would dare suggest that "Voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3." According to all the rules of the political game, statements such as these should disqualify Boris from serious consideration. Yet what other British politician could have 60,000 Britons chanting his name as Boris did when he welcomed the Olympic torch to London?

Be this as it may, the idea of Boris as a future leader of the Conservative party, much less a potential prime minister, is still somewhat implausible. Though he has benefitted from his Olympic moment (to the extent that whereas, in May, just 24 percent of Britons said they thought him a suitable candidate for prime minister, some 36 percent approve of his credentials now) it remains the case that Boris, for all his charm and wit, remains an improbable candidate. But that was true when he ran for mayor -- and look what happened.

If voters are indeed tired of disciplined, on-message politicians forever striving to spin their way to the top, then it is no wonder they find Boris so appealing. Unkempt, shambolic, and all over the place, Boris seems the antidote to "professional" politicians. He is not groomed. He does not have a script. As one astute analyst noted recently, Boris has become "the clown prince of the anti-politics movement." At a time in which politicians are routinely mistrusted Boris at least has the advantage of seeming authentic. He is the greatest political celebrity of an age that scorns politics and is in thrall to celebrity. This makes him a figure of endless fascination.

Is it all an act? Can Boris really be as daft or idiosyncratic as he seems? Not likely. But could Britons really consider voting for a man who seems to have sprung from the pages of P.G. Wodehouse? It seems a whole lot more possible now than it did just six months ago.

Perhaps the Olympic good feelings won't last beyond a few weeks. But with a stagnant economy and a coalition government increasingly defined by intramural squabbling, if ever there was a time for Boris, this may be it. All the usual rules say Boris must be unelectable but, as he has already proved, Boris doesn't play by the usual rules. Beneath that blonde mop of hair and behind that disheveled, often ludicrous, public front lurks a politician of low cunning and high ambition. And that makes him dangerous.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Argument

Brother Knows Best

How Egypt's new president is outsmarting the generals.

Shortly after the Aug. 5 killing of 16 paramilitary policemen near Egypt's border with the Gaza Strip, Egyptian, Israeli, and U.S. officials determined that the perpetrators were part of an "extremist group" -- one they have yet to identify. According to official accounts, assailants firing AK-47s attacked the conscripts and officers as they prepared for iftar, the traditional breaking of the Ramadan fast. Eight of the terrorists were killed in the ensuing firefight, but not before the perpetrators hijacked an armored personnel carrier and tried unsuccessfully to cross the Egypt-Israel frontier.

To a variety of observers, however, the official story seems a little too neat. The Egyptian government rarely comes to a quick conclusion about anything except when its leaders have something to hide, typically resulting in a half-baked story that few are inclined to believe. The tale about a shadowy group of militants fits the bill, leaving journalists, commentators, and other skeptical Egyptians with two theories: Either the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and Egypt's intelligence services planned the operation to embarrass Egypt's new president, Mohamed Morsy, or Israel's Mossad did it -- a silly allegation that Morsy's own Muslim Brotherhood advanced. Lost in all this speculation, however, were the attack's unexpected but important political effects.

What makes the Rafah incident more interesting than previous attacks in Sinai -- of which there have been many -- is its potential to break Egypt's political logjam. At first it looked as if Morsy would bear much of the blame for the attack despite his tough rhetoric in its aftermath. Indeed, he stayed away from the funerals for the martyred policemen, claiming implausibly that his security detail would disrupt proper mourning rituals. Protesters chased Hisham Qandil, Morsy's handpicked prime minister, from the proceedings with a barrage of shoes. On Tuesday, it seemed that predictions of Morsy's early political demise would prove accurate. But just 24 hours later the tables had turned.

It was perhaps inevitable that Egypt's various political parties, groups, and factions would try to leverage the violence in Rafah to their political advantage. Even the April 6 Movement, Kefaya, and other less well-known groups seized the opportunity to burnish their now fading political images with what turned out to be a sparsely attended protest. They rallied near the Israeli ambassador's residence over Mossad's alleged responsibility for the killings, apparently indifferent to the irony of expressing solidarity with the widely demonized  security forces. At the end of the day, however, these antics were but a sideshow to the next act in Egypt's central political drama, pitting the SCAF against the Muslim Brothers.

For months now, it has seemed that this play had no end. The Brothers have long maintained a vision of society that resonates with many Egyptians but very little in the way of means to transform these ideas into reality. The military is an exact mirror image of the Brothers. The officers have no coherent and appealing worldview, but they have had the ability to prevent those who do from accumulating power and altering the political system. The result has been a stalemate, marked by a series of tactical political deals that only last until circumstances force the Brothers and the officers to seek accommodation.

But the Rafah killings may well have tipped the scales. As weak as Morsy's position seemed to be, two distinct advantages have enabled him to spin the attack to his political advantage: the utter the incompetence of Maj. Gen. Murad Muwafi, the head of the General Intelligence Service, and the very fact that Morsy is a popularly elected president.

On the first count, Muwafi admitted that his organization intercepted details of the attack before it happened, but that he and his team never "imagined that a Muslim would kill a Muslim brother at iftar in Ramadan." He then passed the buck, lamely offering that he had given the information to the proper authorities, presumably the Ministry of Interior. Muwafi may have been using the reference to Muslims' killing of fellow Muslims while breaking fast to cast suspicion on the Israelis -- no matter that this theory is demonstrably untrue -- or because it reflected the complacency of the Mubarak era of which he is a product. Either way, it played to Morsy's advantage.

Under Mubarak, Muwafi would likely have gotten away with his ineptitude. No doubt, there were intelligence failures during the Mubarak era, but the former president and his minions could always count on force and state propaganda to cover their tracks. (It is important to remember that however unseemly it was for the Muslim Brotherhood to blame Israel for the Rafah attacks, it is a tactic that Hosni Mubarak perfected during his three decades in power. A little more than a month after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, for example, Mubarak told an Israeli TV audience, "You are responsible [for terrorism]." ) But old tricks don't always work in the new Egypt. Muwafi's admission that the GIS knew an attack was on the way provided Morsy with an opportunity to clean house -- a stunning move made possible only by the fact that he can claim a popular mandate. Out went Muwafi, North Sinai governor Abdel Wahab Mabrouk, and Hamdi Badeen, the powerful commander of the Military Police.

The SCAF, the GIS, and Ministry of Interior may yet respond, but they are in a difficult political position. How do they justify opposing the president for removing the people ostensibly responsible for failing to prevent the deaths of Egyptian troops? In the new, more open Egypt, people are demanding accountability and Morsy is giving it to them,  which may be why Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the SCAF, has so far yielded to Morsy. Yet Tantawi's position is made all the more precarious because if he does not respond in some way, he is signaling that there is no price to be paid for defying Egypt's defense and national security establishment, opening the way to further efforts to undermine the deep state.

Given the SCAF's June 17 constitutional decree stripping the Egyptian presidency of virtually all of its national security and defense-related prerogatives, it is unclear whether Morsy has the authority to back up his sweeping personnel changes. Muwafi is a military officer, but General Intelligence is -- at least on the government of Egypt's organizational chart -- separate from the Ministry of Defense, which would suggest that the president was within his legal right went he sacked the intelligence chief.  The same argument can be used regarding Abdel Wahab Mabrouk, who is also a military officer but, by dint of his position as governor, is subordinate to the interior minister. Yet like so much in Egypt, what is written is different from actual practice, so there may be ways that both men retain their positions. The fate of Badeen is clearer since he is an active military officer and the June 17 decree prohibits the president from making personnel moves without SCAF's approval. At the very least, President Morsy will have to leave the choice of Badeen's replacement to Field Marshal Tantawi.

As the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other major newspapers all dutifully reported, the violence in Sinai was  an "urgent" and "crucial" test of Morsy in his "tense relationship with the military." It was, indeed,  an early test, and Egypt's new president seemed to pass with flying colors. Against all expectations, Morsy made the most politically out of the Rafah killings. To be sure, this episode was not exactly Anwar Sadat's takedown of Ali Sabri, Gen. Mohamed Fawzi, and Gen. Sharawi Guma in 1971 for allegedly plotting a coup d'état that ended with all three behind bars and went a long way toward consolidating Sadat's power. Yet if Morsy can make the dismissals stick, he will not only have made a convincing case that he is much more than the weak transitional figure the SCAF has sought to make him, but he also will have begun a process that could alter the relationship between Egypt's security elite and its civilian (and now elected) leadership.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images