Nikita Khrushchev once said that “politicians are the same all over,” for “they promise to build a bridge even where there is no river.” I agree with the second part. While most politicians are prone to making hefty promises and unrealistic pledges, their deeds and fates diverge fundamentally. Some politicians succeed and inspire, others fail drastically, leaving office disheartened and ostracized. Some politicians are forever remembered, others sink into oblivion in the blink of an eye. More importantly, only a few politicians conquer the constraints imposed by their environments, the rest remain prisoners of their own time.
To which type of politicians does Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically-elected president who was ousted from power last Wednesday, belong? While Morsi’s supporters overstated his capabilities, his detractors questioned either his competence or his intentions, or both. In any case, political leaders are predominantly the product of their idiosyncrasies; their policies are rooted in their personas, socialization processes, ideas, and worldviews, and Morsi is far from being an exception.
Morsi was born in 1951 into a humble family in the village of El-Adwah, Sharkia governorate. Available information on his early childhood suggests he led an ordinary village life, characterized by enormous economic and social difficulties prevalent in Egypt’s some 5,000 villages. Morsi recalled that he used to go to school on the back of a donkey (1). For Morsi, just like many of his peers, joining the ranks of the well-organized and deeply entrenched Muslim Brotherhood group (MB) seemed like a natural choice. In the largely underdeveloped countryside, where poverty is rife and public services are scarce, the MB has stepped in to fill the vacuum left (or, perhaps, created) by the state. The wide range of charitable services the group provides in rural areas are clothed in the robes of piety and religious righteousness. To be sure, when people are economically deprived and profoundly religious, the provision of material sustenance combined with the soothing lure of religious talk—that is, food for the body and the soul—is the most effective tool to attract followers and sympathizers.
Morsi spent the last three decades of his life in the womb of the MB. He imbibed at a young age the group’s ideology and the values of organizational discipline and loyalty to senior leaders. It was these three decades that witnessed the rise of the disciples of Sayed Qutb’s orthodox school of thought to the upper echelons of the MB. Qutb, a writer, Islamist theorist and activist executed in 1966 for plotting against Nasser’s regime, adopted a rigid interpretation of the Quran, going as far as condemning Egyptians for living in a state of ’jahiliyyah’ (ignorance of divine guidance). Although the current generation of MB leaders discard Qutb’s proclivity for violence, they harbor feelings of admiration for him and his ideology. Indeed, Morsi defended the ideas of Qutb on a TV show in 2009, saying that he “discovered Islam from the writings of Sayyid Qutb.”
Morsi was little known at home when he entered the presidential race in 2012. He was not a shadowy figure in the MB, but was not so influential either. He was rather a typical Muslim brother, rising up the ladder of the MB by means of diligence, dedication and loyalty. The Economist described him as “quiet and loyal enforcer. (2) ” Prior to his election as president, Morsi was ranked the sixth or seventh in the ironclad hierarchy of the MB. At any rate, he was outweighed by strongmen like Mohamed Badie, the MB’s spiritual guide; his deputy Khairat Al-Shater, the strategist and financier of the group; and Mahmoud Ezzat, a leading figure with extensive administrative experience and influence. Al-Shater was the group’s first-choice candidate for the May 2012 presidential election, but following his disqualification by the elections’ supreme committee, the MB opted for Mohamed Morsi, then the president of the Freedom and Justice Party (the political wing of the group established a few months after Mubarak’s ouster).
Morsi’s subordination to the leaders of the MB, particularly Badie to whom he gave an oath of allegiance, posed questions of conflicting loyalties and their presumable impact on state policies. The national interest was frequently relinquished in favor of the ruling elite’s interest under Mubarak regime’s nepotism. Likewise, many Egyptians questioned over the past year the president’s independence and self-determination, and wondered whether the parochial interests of the MB took precedence over the national interest. Indeed, during his year at the helm, Morsi’s stances never departed from those advocated and promoted by the MB.
Morsi’s attachment to the MB was in essence double-pronged. Not only was he organizationally and psychologically tied to the leadership of the MB, but he was also circumspect about maintaining the loyalty and support of his broad constituency, namely the rank and file of the MB and other Islamist parties and movements. The growing defiance of the opposition and revolutionary youth over the past months pushed him into intensifying his alliance with Islamist forces, including fringe movements. From last November’s tense standoff with the opposition and until his downfall, Morsi had increasingly surrounded himself with his trusted ’brothers,’ planting loyalists in the presidential palace and key government positions while excluding other political and social forces. The resignations of ten of Morsi’s non-MB advisors (out of a total of 18 presidential advisors) did not alert him to the deficiencies of the decision-making process, but instead deepened his reliance on the MB.
Heavily influenced by the years spent in the milieu of the MB, Morsi’s socialization process was mirrored in his decision-making style. The MB was a secretive underground movement that worked behind closed doors almost since its inception in 1928, and that was legally “outlawed” in Mubarak’s three decades of rule. To dodge the state’s persecution, its trained-on-concealment members shrouded their activities in clandestineness and vigilance. Similarly, there was hardly any transparency in the policies of Morsi and his government. Unanticipated policy approaches and government plans appeared abruptly, and were withdrawn by the government as suddenly and mysteriously as they emerged. As a result, shady backroom deals and secret agreements between the president and his allies became more significant than official announcements and public speeches.
The MB was Morsi’s asset and liability concurrently. His unwillingness, perhaps even inability, to restrain his reliance on the MB (and to convince his countrymen that he was serving the interests of all Egyptians equally) came at a heavy price. After just one year in power, the polarization of Egyptian politics deepened, his legitimacy was undermined, and calls for an early presidential election proliferated across the country, eventually putting an end to his regime.
A streak of countryside conservatism along with basic religious teaching acquired through a lengthy process of indoctrination in the MB seems to have produced Morsi’s belief system. The lack of in-depth philosophical or religious learning coupled with self-imposed insulation from other political and ideological currents led to a simplified understanding of the ’self’ and the ’other,’ and of complex, multi-faceted political and social phenomenon. For Morsi, the world’s nations, political actors and ideologies are predominantly perceived in ’black-and-white’ terms, with no shades of grey. Believing that they stand on the right side of history, Morsi and his men saw legitimate political competition through the prism of conspiracy, and accordingly they distrusted, stigmatized, and sometimes even equated with treason opposition to his rule.
If discourse reflects mindset, then much about Morsi can be learned from his words. Replete with popular clichés and misconceptions that jumble politics with ideology and religion, Morsi’s discourse before the 2011 revolution was analogous to that of mediocre preachers or demagogic, politically-illiterate politicians. In this discourse, Israel is relentlessly damned, the backwardness of the Muslim umma (nation) is relentlessly blamed on external conspiracies and the West is essentially seen through the prism of sexual and moral decadence. While there is a shred of truth in these vapid stereotypes, most Islamists regard them as the exclusive version of truth. Unsurprisingly thus, in an interview with scholar Nathan Brown conducted a few years ago, Morsi “put forward a conspiratorial explanation” of the events of 9/11 (3). In the same vein, in a September 2010 video that surfaced a few months ago, Morsi described Zionists as “bloodsuckers” and “the descendants of apes and pigs. (4)” Also, in an interview with the New York Times last September, Morsi expressed his dismay at “the West’s looser sexual mores,” mentioning “naked restaurants” like Hooters (5).
Driven by his need to accentuate the differences between himself and Mubarak, who remained largely aloof and stolid for three decades, Morsi barely missed an opportunity to talk to the public. He presumably broke a world record by delivering more than 50 speeches, sermons and television interviews in his first four months in power. Morsi’s passionate and amiable words initially won him sympathy and respect, but his poor rhetoric, full of digressions and redundancy, did not serve him well for too long. If Egyptians wanted Mubarak to speak to them more than he did, they soon began wondering whether Morsi should speak less than he did.
Too many impromptu speeches and gestures can, indeed, be very detrimental to unsophisticated politicians. In a span of just a few months, Morsi made numerous blunders in public that tarnished his image as a statesman. Impatiently glancing at his watch during a press conference with the German chancellor Angela Merkel, adjusting his private parts in front of cameras while meeting with the Australian prime minister, and addressing an audience of scientists with a speech that included seven factual and scientific errors evoked both laughter and fury. Furthermore, Morsi’s frequent use of difficult-to-decipher metaphors left his audience both bewildered and perturbed. On one occasion, Morsi said: “If the monkey died, what shall the monkey man do?” On another, he drew a vague analogy between the kitsch classic movie “Planet of Apes” and Egypt’s transition to democracy.
To be sure, Morsi’s persona is insipid and uninspiring. He certainly lacks Nasser’s charisma, Sadat’s flamboyance and Mubarak’s caution. Becoming the object of scorn and mockery certainly contributed to Morsi’s quick downfall. A leader, clearly, starts losing power when he loses people’s faith in his ability to lead.
Morsi’s paranoia of the opposition was certainly aggravated by his heightened perception of threat. As a rule, threats are the lifeblood of Islamist movements, giving their existence legitimacy and bolstering their unity and coherence. If threats did not exist over the MB’s 85-year life, they would have likely been created. The tyrant state and its brutal security arm represented the prime source of threat for the MB during the long years of repression. Threat perceptions endured after the group rose to power, only its source changed. To Morsi and the MBs, the agents of the “deep state” inhibited change from within the state, and the opposition conspired against his rule from without the state. Whether real or perceived, these perceptions had an impact on Morsi’s inclination to consolidate power rather than engineer an inclusive democratic process.
Huge normative differences between Islamists and secularists also deepened Morsi’s distrust and suspicion of his opponents. Although the MB accepts democracy, it seems to be less interested in democracy for its own sake than in what it can achieve. The violence of the earlier generations of the MBs came to an end in 1965, and the group began to participate in parliamentary elections in the 1980s. This journey from the bullet to the ballot did not entail a complete adoption of democratic principles. The Muslim brothers seem to respect the ’procedures’ of democracy (particularly elections) far more than its ’values.’ While the former pave the way to power, the latter stand in contradiction with Islamic law. So far, Islamists’ attempts at bridging the gap between both systems of references have not been entirely successful, with far-reaching consequences on their stances toward various political and social questions.
Facing extraordinary political and economic challenges, post-Mubarak Egypt needed an extraordinary president. It is unsurprising that Morsi failed the test of statesmanship; it’s surprising how fast he did. His removal from office made him the second shortest serving Egyptian ruler since Mohamed Ali’s reign (1805-1848), in contrast to his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, who is the second longest serving Egyptian ruler in the same period. Then again, there is nothing new under the sun. Over its long and rich history, Egypt has always been the land of striking contrasts and glaring contradictions.