Tag Archives: Egypt

Morsi Code: The Hidden Legacy of Egypt’s First Elected President

It is tempting to perceive the eerie recent demise of Mohamed Morsi – the first and, to date, only President of Egypt to have been propelled to that office by popular elections – as the final chapter of the abortive early twenty-first century democratic transition experienced by North Africa’s most populous nation. The ejection of Morsi – whose sudden death at the time of his trial for alleged espionage was apparently avoidable – by means of a violent military coup on 3rd July 2013 was an act which has defined the country’s political trajectory ever since.

This perception has been made easier by the fact that Morsi’s removal – which cannot easily be defended in the context of democracy – was nevertheless a broadly popular one. The bespectacled engineer – who was an assistant professor at California State University, Northridge from 1982 to 1985 – essentially became the fall guy for a movement which somehow conspired to blow a position of political dominance within an exceptionally short time-frame; indeed, there are few parallels to the implosion of Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party in the canon of political science.

However, such an evaluation lacks perspective. While Egypt’s nascent democracy has been shattered and authoritarian rule is back with a vengeance, on closer examination the ghost of Mohamed Morsi is discernible in at least three key ways:

  1. Magic money trees. The Egyptian government’s embarking upon an all-out infrastructure splurge – new metro lines in Cairo, the gradual introduction of a serious universal healthcare policy and an entire new administrative capital – is a clear signal that the ruling elite is now at least somewhat aware that the proffering of a Faustian pact is a de minimis governance proposition
  2. Technocratic competence. In the absence of meaningful elections, current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (‘Sisi’) has placed strong emphasis on the appointment of educated experts to appropriate portfolios in the name of macroeconomic stability; a significant weakness of the Morsi administration was the relative lack of attention paid to rational policy formulation.
  3. Identity crisis. Tellingly, Sisi has also co-opted Islamist identity politics, with markers of ostensible piety – such as the headscarf – richly in evidence even amongst his own family. This is nothing if not an ironic nod to the Freedom and Justice Party, but it also serves to highlight one of that organisation’s central flaws: an obsession with pseudo-religious symbolism. Its eventual successors must transcend this if they are to have a chance of contributing to a more sustainable political economy.

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Never Say No to Panda: Is Egypt’s Brand of Ultranationalist Authoritarianism Sustainable?

Screen Shot 2014-11-20 at 17.41.13As incredible as it may seem, the ostensible beginnings of the Arab Spring are the best part of four years in the past; while many elements of this phenomenon are still somewhat opaque, there is little doubt that life in Egypt – the Arab world’s most populous country – is degenerating into an eerie parody of decades gone by. A recent open-editorial NYT piece by the Al Shorouk journalist Sara Khorshid (Egypt’s New Police State, 16th November 2014) confirms that something as innocent as a conversation with a foreigner in a café can set a person on the course to being denounced and detained.

Khorshid and her sister were chatting with Alain Gresh – editor of the venerable Le Monde Diplomatique periodical – in a Cairo dining establishment on 11th November 2014 when their exchanges were interrupted by someone claiming that they were ‘ruining Egypt’; on leaving the eatery, the trio were stopped by a security officer who informed them of some of their own autobiographical information in a similar manner to a stalker-type character in a cheap 1990s American psychological thriller. Their ordeal continued until their eventual release two hours later, following a couple of telephone calls from M. Gresh to the French Embassy and the top man at the Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate; that this episode took place in one of Cairo’s more genteel neighbourhoods is a stark illustration of the prevailing climate in the country.

But assuming that Khorshid is correct in describing today’s Egypt as reminiscent of the very worst of Nasser’s hyper-nationalist, paranoid police state, the question on everybody’s lips should be: is this sustainable? Authoritarian politics can work – after a fashion – in today’s über-connected societies, but meaningful financial incentives have to be present within the system. As many of Egypt’s neighbours – as well as states like Russia and China – are swiftly discovering, it is hard work for authoritarian ruling classes (and those in democracies) to stay one step ahead of the populace, even assuming rapid economic growth; in its absence, wrapping one’s compatriots in an increasingly tattered flag is barely a strategy. (Former) General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi would do well to prioritise spreading the benefits of his country’s notoriously unevenly-distributed wealth lest he risks resembling the star of Egypt’s famous Panda cheese commercials: a take-no-prisoners bear who responds to any insinuation of ‘disloyalty’ with brute and inapposite force.

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