Voice

Morsi's Egypt

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's sudden move last week to oust the senior leadership of the Egyptian military broke a long period of political stagnation and began to bring into view the contours of the emerging political order. It reversed views of Morsi almost overnight. Only two weeks ago, most analysts had written Morsi off as a weak and ineffective executive boxed in by the ascendant military leadership of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). After his bold move against the SCAF and reversal of its constitutional decrees, many now fear that he and the Muslim Brotherhood stand at the brink of nigh-totalitarian domination.

Both the earlier dismissal and the current exaggerated fears seem premature. Egypt's politics remain polarized, its economy staggering, its institutions decayed. Rules of the game remain in flux, with the constitution still unwritten, parliament dissolved, and the judiciary viewed through a partisan lens. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood's accelerated push for power risks triggering a backlash, not only from anti-Islamist forces but from centrists uneasy with ideological domination and from Salafi and other Islamist forces jealous of the movement's position. The military may have suffered a setback, but it retains great institutional and economic power, the respect of the Egyptian public, and (lest we forget) guns. Revolutionary forces have been relegated to the sidelines in recent months, but could rekindle street politics at any moment. In Egypt's polarized political environment, fueled by its contentious and turbocharged media and online public sphere, no consensus is likely to soon emerge.

In short, it is still too early to tell which direction Morsi will take Egypt, which forces will cooperate, and which forces will move to resist. There are a number of common theories of the case. One, pointing to deep-seated mistrust of the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi's unprecedented monopoly on formal power, and disturbing moves against the independent media, demonstrates fear that he will now seek to impose Islamist hegemony. Another sees the military still largely in control, sacrificing its aging figureheads and public political role in exchange for more entrenched power behind the scenes. Still others see Morsi's move as an important step in advancing the transition from authoritarianism to a democratic system by establishing civilian control over the military.

Which of these is correct? Is Egypt still under SCAF's control, heading toward an Islamist theocracy, on the road to democracy, or on the brink of economic and institutional collapse that will make a mockery of the high political games that dominate the headlines? The rapid shift in the narrative should breed at least some analytical humility. Many argue the drafting of the constitution will reveal the truth, but it seems unlikely that any greater interpretive consensus will emerge around that process than has been seen around any other point in Egypt's long, tortured transition to a post-Mubarak era.

"Morsi's Egypt" offers a wide range of analysis of how Egypt got to this point, where it may be going, and how to understand it all. It ranges widely over the dizzying moves of the last few months, including controversial moves by the judiciary around the presidential election ("Calvinball in Cairo," "Cairo's Judicial Coup," and "Egypt's Injudicious Judges"); the role of the military ("The Egyptian Republic of Retired Generals," "Hard Choices for Egypt's Military," "What Morsi Could Learn from Sadat," and "Cobra and Mongoose Become Lion and Lamb"); the struggles of non-Islamist political forces ("Can Egypt Unite?," and "It ain't just a river in Egypt"); the Muslim Brotherhood's calculations ("Monopolizing power in Egypt," "Brother knows best," "Bad news for - and from - the Brotherhood," and much more, including a special guest appearance by the great Ellis Goldberg. Download "Morsi's Egypt" here! 

Marc Lynch

Lamborghini Morsi

After long weeks of political gridlock and stagnation, Egypt's elected President Mohamed Morsi suddenly hit the gas over the weekend. Over the span of a few days, Morsi removed the head of General Intelligence, the head of the Military Police, the top two senior leaders of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and the heads of all the military services. In addition to this SCAF-Quake, Morsi also canceled the controversial constitutional amendments promulgated by the SCAF just before he took office and issued a new, equally controversial amendment and roadmap of his own. What's more, this all came after he replaced the editors of major state-owned newspapers with people viewed as sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood and cracked down on several other critical papers. Zero to 180 in three days -- even Usain Bolt would be impressed by that acceleration. Swirv.

What does it all mean? It's a bit of a cop-out, but really it's too soon to tell. As always in Egypt, information is both scarce and abundant. Nobody really knows what's going on, rumors of every variety fly fast and furious, and everyone has pieced together plausible-sounding theories based on their fears or analytical predispositions. (Remember, though, as a rule it's almost never as bad as it seems on Twitter.) It will take a while for the full implications to become clear. Eventually, more reliable information will trickle out about what really happened: were Tantawi and Anan consulted, or did they find out on TV? Did junior officers collude with the presidents office, or were they equally surprised? And the behavior of key actors in the coming weeks will shed light on their intentions this weekend:  does Morsi move to impose an Islamist vision or reach out to create a broadly based constitutional convention? Does the military strike back in some form? Until then, just about everyone -- in Cairo, in Washington, and everywhere else -- is struggling to pierce through the haze and make out what they can.

Taking that uncertainty into account, I can see at least three dominant takes on what's going on. Those who believe the SCAF remains fully in control see a clever scheme to cement long-term military rule in alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood by gently dumping the unpopular figureheads while retaining an institutional hold on power. Those who fear the Muslim Brotherhood see the makings of a full-scale Ikhwanization of Egypt, with Morsi seizing dictatorial powers, brushing aside the secular bastion of the SCAF, and putting himself in place to shape the new constitution. And those who still see the prospect for some kind of real democratic transition can find some comfort in an elected president removing the senior leaders of the outgoing military junta without a bloody fight and asserting the principle of political control by an elected president. None of these three strikes me as completely right and all probably have some elements of truth. But there's nothing very satisfying about a theory of the case which is equally satisfied with, say, Tantawi remaining in his position or Tantawi being forced out of his position. 

My general take is still that the current phase of Egyptian politics is going to be a long, grinding institutional war of position. That kind of politics can be deeply frustrating for an engaged public sphere, since so much of it takes place behind the scenes and in indirect maneuvers rather than in thrilling street protests or the realm of public debate. For example, presumably Morsi and his team have been carefully preparing the ground for this weekend's moves during the weeks where his administration appeared to be passive, floundering, and ineffective. In this arena, Morsi's moves were a bold and unexpected frontal assault on the senior military leadership, but not a decisive one. His appointment of the respected jurist Mahmoud Mekki as Vice President could be seen as another such bold move in institutional combat, by potentially co-opting or intimidating the judiciary. But bold as the moves were, they don't instantly wipe away the real power centers in Egyptian politics. Morsi today is more of a president, but Egypt is a long way from the "Islamic Republic" being bandied about by the Brotherhood's critics. 

The fundamental problem remains one of trust and the absence of legitimate institutions. The political polarization of the last year and a half, fueled by all too many political and rhetorical mistakes on all sides, has left profound scars. The Shafiq voters in the presidential election have hardly reconciled themselves to Morsi, and most activists and revolutionaries remain as alienated as ever from a political struggle dominated by the military and the Brotherhood. On top of the polarization comes the legal Calvinball, where rules and legal institutions are fundamentally contested and no arbiter has uncontested judicial authority. And then there's the regrettable absence of a parliament, another casualty of the pre-election institutional warfare. With so much in flux and so much distrust, every move, no matter how minor, becomes deeply laden with potential treachery and disaster. And this was no minor move. 

In most cases, I would think that the removal of the SCAF's senior leadership and the assertion of civilian control by an elected government would be celebrated as a major triumph in the push for a transition to a civil, democratic state. But the deeply rooted fears of the Muslim Brotherhood, fueled by recognition of their popular strength and doubts about their democratic convictions, prevents any easy acceptance of that reading in many quarters. That's why the next few weeks will be crucial, as Morsi makes clear what kind of constitutional process he really intends and as the military and the anti-Islamist trends in Egyptian politics weigh their next moves.  

I think that on balance this should be seen as a potentially positive step, despite the real downside risks of Muslim Brotherhood domination. It could even be a way to overcome at least one dimension of that deep political and social polarization which has been the legacy of the last political period. Asserting civilian control and removing the top SCAF leaders were necessary steps which most Egypt analysts didn't expect at this point, and which -- lest we forget -- have been among the primary demands of the revolution since almost the beginning. If the golden parachute of some form of unwritten amnesty and appointments to advisory position was the way to get Tantawi and the others to step down without a fight, then this seems a price worth paying. But that verdict would change if Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood does go on to seek to dominate the new constitutional assembly-- and that should, and will, be a major focus of the coming period.  

Note:  The title of this post pays homage this Kanye/Big Sean/Pusha T banger.  Obviously NSFW.  How I wish someone with skills would do a remix of this one as "Morsi."

Mark Wilson/Getty Images