Judging by the corporate media obituaries, “Egypt’s first democratically elected president”–who died while on trial in a Cairo courtroom on June 17–was a well-meaning but inept leader who “governed clumsily” before being overthrown by the military. In reality Mohamed Morsi was an Islamist supremacist. He tried to use his narrow electoral victory in 2012 to smash Egypt’s budding democratic institutions and transform the country into a Muslim Brotherhood-ruled theocracy.
THE MEDIA TAKE– The tone was set by The New York Times. It devoted four-fifths of a 1500-word obituary, published on the same day, to the alleged mistreatment of Morsi in jail while he endured a series of “politicized trials.”
The Times’s two obituarists glossed over his year-long rule with a bland summary worthy of Walter Duranty. Morsi’s election was “the apex of the Arab Spring uprising… a high point for the Muslim Brotherhood, a 91-year-old Islamist movement founded in Egypt and whose influence extends across the Arab world.” Not a word about the Brotherhood’s objectives, or about the record of its nine decades of often violent activity. No mention of Morsi’s disputed 51.73 percent victory over his secularist opponent, Ahmad Shafik (whom the Morsi government tried to arrest and put on trial just three months later); or the claim that the true results were in favor of Shafik, but the military gave the presidency to Morsi because it feared Islamist unrest.
“For many Egyptians,” the obituary claimed, “Mr. Morsi’s election was their greatest hope for a definitive break with the country’s long history of autocracy.” On the other hand, “some Egyptians worried that he might impose strict Islamic moral codes.” No hint that a little over three percentage points separated “many Egyptians” from “some Egyptians.”
The article did mention that “critics in Washington and around the region raised alarms that he might even seek to establish a form of theocratic rule”– even!–but apparently they were in for a pleasant surprise: Morsi sought “cordial relations” with the US, kept diplomatic relations with Israel, and even developed “a warm working relationship with President Barack Obama…”
The authors grudgingly admitted that Morsi “governed clumsily, at one point issuing a decree that critics said [sic!] put him above the rule of law.” They were quick to add, however, that his “supporters said the decree was part of his efforts to grapple with a hostile security establishment that was actively maneuvering to undermine his authority.” Again, for each objection raised by “critics” the authors had a ready, approvingly quoted response.
They went on to note that “in the early summer of 2013, giant protests against Mr. Morsi filled Tahrir Square… providing the military with an excuse to oust him.” They gave no clue as to the cause of those “giant protests,” or the motives of the military to intervene – only a year after the generals allowed Morsi to assume presidency (or even gave him an undeserved victory). The obituary ended on a melancholy note:
Morsi’s defense minister, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, seized power on July 3, 2013. Six weeks later, Egyptian security forces shot dead at least 817 protesters, mostly from the Muslim Brotherhood, in what human rights groups called the largest mass shooting of demonstrators in recent history. Mr. el-Sisi was elected president in 2014 and still rules the country with an iron grip, with Egypt’s democratic hopes largely extinguished.
After the coup, the obituary concludes, Sisi “sought to banish the Muslim Brotherhood, calling it a terrorist group and sparing little effort to discredit it among the Egyptian public.” As for the Brotherhood leaders, most “are in jail or exile, and thousands of its members languish in Egypt’s crowded prisons.” The bad guys won.
Also on June 17, The Washington Post published its own obituary, different in form but identical in tone. Morsi “hailed from Egypt’s largest Islamist group, the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood”–no mention of the meaning of such association. The Brotherhood and human rights groups accused the government of “assassinating” him through years of poor prison conditions. The claim, it is clearly suggested, was not unfounded. Thus came “a dramatic end for a figure who was central in the twists and turns taken by Egypt… from the pro-democracy uprising that in 2011 ousted the country’s longtime authoritarian leader, Hosni Mubarak, through controversial Islamist rule and now back to a tight grip under the domination of military men.”
The Post’s obituarist admitted that unnamed “critics” accused the Brotherhood of using violence against opponents and seeking to monopolize power and Islamize the state, but he does not dwell on the veracity of the accusation. “Massive protests grew against their rule”–apparently for no discernible reason–until the military stepped in,
… ousted Morsi in July 2013, dissolved parliament and eventually banned the Brotherhood as a ‘terrorist group.’ El-Sissi was elected president and re-elected in 2018 in votes human rights groups sharply criticized as undemocratic. He has waged a ferocious crackdown that crushed the Brotherhood but also almost all other dissent, arresting tens of thousands, banning protests and silencing most criticism in the media.
Morsi had supposedly “made gestures toward the secular pro-democracy activists who led the 2011 Arab Spring,” but “over the course of the year, opponents accused his Brotherhood of hijacking the revolution and trying to entrench Islamist rule.” The Post, just like its older sister on New York’s 41st Street, pointedly failed to consider the accuracy of such “accusations.”
This list could go on. Once these two beacons of bien pensant correctitude set the party line, it is an even bet that no respectable medium will deviate.
THE REALITY– To understand the U.S. media pack posture on Morsi, it is necessary to recall that during both his terms President Obama based his Middle Eastern policy on the covert backing for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB and its various subsidiaries) in Syria, and–more significantly–on the overt U.S. support for its power grab in Egypt. The writing had been on the wall ever since June 2009, when a dozen members of the Muslim Brotherhood were invited – at the insistence of the U.S. Department of State–to hear Obama’s now famous speech to the Muslim world in Cairo.
The direction of policy was clear from the State Department’s waiver of congressional restrictions in order to transfer $1.5 billion dollars in aid to Egypt after the Brotherhood’s January 2012 success in the country’s parliamentary election. This remarkable decision by the Obama administration, which overlooked numerous claims of irregularities favoring the MB (which were subsequently confirmed by the courts), preceded the presidential vote by five months. It gave Morsi a significant boost during his election campaign.
The rhetoric and tools of “democracy” were adroitly used by the MB in accordance with Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s memorable quip that “democracy is a train–you can get off when you reach your destination.” The theoretical foundation for what Morsi actually had in mind for Egypt was provided by Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), the MB ideologue executed by the Nasser regime. Since all non-Islamic states were illegitimate, Qutb wrote, a self-defining Islamic “vanguard”–inspired by the early Bolshevik model–was needed to wage jihad against them. The MB, like the Bolsheviks, explicitly denied the legitimacy of any form of social, political, or cultural association other than itself.
As soon as Morsi came to power in June 2012, Obama’s officials started pressing Egyptian generals into quiet surrender to the Brotherhood’s agenda. Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Mike Hammer thus declared in Cairo in late July 2012 that Washington would deal with “satisfaction” with the new Egyptian leadership and that Egypt was “moving in a positive direction.” Hammer stressed that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held a very positive meeting with President Morsi” two weeks earlier, less than a month after the presidential vote.
Secretary Clinton’s meeting with Morsi (July 15, 2012) was “very positive,” but only for the MB. Upon arrival in Cairo she declared her support for “the military’s return to a purely national security role.” She assured Morsi that the U.S. was doing all it could to “support the democratically elected government and to help make it a success in delivering results for the people of Egypt.” In the ensuing weeks and months Hillary Clinton exerted intense pressure on Egypt’s generals not to challenge Morsi’s agenda. She supported his ploy in the fall of 2012 to reconvene the constitutional assembly, even though this body had been declared illegal by the courts which ruled that Morsi had packed it with MB deputies posing as independents.
When in November 2012 Morsi issued a decree giving himself dictatorial powers, including immunity to any judicial oversight, hundreds of thousands took to the streets. Clinton’s State Department responded lamely, by urging “all Egyptians to resolve their differences… peacefully and through democratic dialogue.” The Obama administration ignored the fact that Morsi’s edict that he could pass any law and take any measure that “advances the Revolution” was revolutionary in itself. It made Mubarak and his two predecessors, Sadat and Nasser, look like scrupulous constitutionalists. It was the Islamist equivalent of the 1933 Enabling Act passed in the aftermath of the Reichstag fire.
Secure in the knowledge that the new constitution would be firmly based on Sharia and duly enacted by hook or by crook, Morsi disingenuously claimed that his dictatorial new powers would be temporary, in force only “until a new constitution is approved.” To the chagrin of Egypt’s secularists, Secretary Clinton’s then-spokeswoman Victoria Nuland responded on November 28, 2012, by saying that Morsi was seeking dialogue “with other stakeholders in Egypt” and that “he was not an autocrat.”
Emboldened from Washington, in the final days of 2012 Morsi rammed through a new, Sharia-based constitution. One-third of Egypt’s eligible voters turned out for the two-stage referendum (December 15 and 22), with 64 percent supporting the draft constitution–fewer than 22 percent of the electorate. Nevertheless, Morsi signed into law on December 26. The vote was marred by a host of irregularities, but the demands for a full inquiry had been ignored.
Morsi’s constitution elevated Islamic Shariah and its Sunni doctrines to “the principal source of all legislation.” Article 4 gave Muslim clerics at al-Azhar, a bastion of Islamic orthodoxy, the task of deciding whether Egypt’s laws were Sharia-compliant. Article 11 authorized the state to protect Islamic values. It guaranteed all the usual freedoms (expression, assembly etc), provided those rights were Sharia-compliant. Christians and Jews were free to practice their rites and establish places of worship, but those rights were hedged on the condition that they do not “violate public order”–another catchall phrase used all over the Islamic world to restrict non-Muslims’ rights.
The U.S. remained aloof throughout. After Clinton’s departure from Foggy Bottom the substance of policy had not changed. In March 2013 her successor John Kerry came to Cairo to express his support for Morsi, and announced a $250 million aid package with no strings attached. As late as May 2013 the White House overrode a Congressional bid to withhold military funding to Egypt and tie any future assistance to the respect for human rights. This news was ignored in the U.S. but it was given a great deal of prominence in Egypt by the gloating pro-Morsi media and his MB base. It cemented the impression that Washington was supporting a repressive Islamist regime.
In June 2013, the mass demonstrations that led to Morsi’s downfall saw many placards accusing Obama of allying himself with “terrorists” and supporting a “fascist regime in Egypt.” On June 30 Cairo witnessed the biggest mass protest in history. Nevertheless, the State Department did not issue an equivalent to its February 2011 statement–during the initial Arab Spring protests against Mubarak–that the Egyptian people’s “grievances have reached a boiling point.”
MORSI: DEAD, IRRELEVANT– The events of the past six years prove that autocracy is the only way to rule Egypt. When it was all over, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, then 58-year-old chief of the armed forces, addressed the nation. He referred to the legitimacy the people had given to military action, but also implied that Egypt is too important to be ruled by the plurality of its people. His resolve was evident in the fierceness with which the security forces have dealt with the Islamists ever since. Six years later, the incidence of violent crime in Egypt is negligible compared to the U.S. or even Europe. There are fewer victims of jihadist terrorism than in France or Germany.
The army understood what Morsi could not: that the Egyptian state is a complex, somewhat ramshackle institution in which divergent interests are mediated and reconciled by formal mechanisms and (more importantly) informal means, and not an object of heavy-handed Islamist experimentation which excluded many key stakeholders.
Morsi is dead, Sisi is firmly in charge, and future U.S. policy on Egypt should follow the American interest: stability and predictability, keeping the Suez Canal open, keeping the Sinai peaceful. The current government–firmly led, stable, and on the whole competent–is the only possible U.S. partner in the epicenter of the Arab world for many years to come. This is the reality, regardless of how Mrs. Clinton and the Obama-era nostalgists in the corporate media feel about it.