The Corner

Morsi’s Calculus: Exploit the West’s Spring Fever and Call for Parliamentary Elelctions

In Egypt’s turmoil, President Mohamed Morsi has played the latest round shrewdly, as one would expect of a Muslim Brotherhood strategist. Al-Ahram reports:

In a televised address on Tuesday, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi called for dialogue, saying he was engaged with members of the opposition – without mentioning which groups – for an initiative aimed at resolving the current political crisis.

He said the initiative included forming a new government, hastening the passage of parliamentary elections laws so as to hold elections within six months, forming a committee to review proposed constitutional amendments, resolving disagreements over Egypt’s prosecutor-general, and promoting the inclusion of youth in government.

After blaming the ousted Mubarak regime for most of Egypt’s ills, which he said had led to a degree of anger among the opposition, Morsi repeatedly stated that he would safeguard the “legitimacy” of the democratic process that brought him to office one year ago.

“I will protect [democratic] legitimacy with my life,” the president asserted firmly.

“We have to prove to the world that we are capable of democracy…peacefully, we protect [democratic] legitimacy…legitimacy is our only safeguard from future faults….I do not accept anyone saying anything or taking any steps against legitimacy; this is completely out of the question,” Morsi said.

Two things to bear in mind here:

1. We have reached the point that we harsh critics of the bipartisan U.S. policy of “Islamic democracy” promotion have always warned about: Anti-democratic totalitarians clinging to power by exploiting the West’s Spring Fever.

Now, an obsession to promote real democracy might be a good thing. But the U.S. government’s “Islamic democracy” fetish is about elections, not a culture of liberty that respects minority rights. In an Islamic supremacist society, elections are effectively anti-democratic because they inevitably result in the majority’s imposition of repressive sharia on the minorities – an imposition perversely given the patina of democratic legitimacy by wrong-headed Western rhetoric that equates elections with democracy while mulishly insisting sharia and freedom are perfectly compatible.

Remember: Morsi was elected, he did not seize power. He also did not impose sharia – Egyptians voted overwhelmingly for it. The committee that drafted the sharia constitution was dominated by Islamic supremacists because the committee’s make-up was controlled by the parliament, three-quarters of whose seats were held by Islamic supremacists (about 50 percent for the Brotherhood and 25 percent for “Salafist” parties) because Egyptians voted them into power. Egyptians gave themselves the opportunity to do that by holding a referendum on constitutional amendments – Egypt’s first post-Mubarak, “democratic” election – in which the public gave Islamic supremacistsa smashing 78 to 22 percent triumph over the opposition.

For the last 20 years, the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations have all bet the house money on the “elections equal democracy” fantasy. So has Europe. This has persisted even as it brought terrorists and other anti-democratic Islamic supremacists to power (e.g., Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq), and even as Erdogan has exploited it in Turkey to transform a real democracy into an increasingly repressive state. Morsi understands that America and the West are totally invested in the fraud that the electoral process they rode to power is the triumph of democracy over dictatorship (rather than a transition from one kind of dictatorship to a different, more suffocating kind). In the current crisis, Morsi is trying to use the West’s own policy and rhetoric to paralyze it into inaction. Like Erdogan, Morsi also figures this will profoundly discourage the military from launch a coup to oust the Islamic-supremacist civilian administration.

It might work.

2. As I argued yesterday, it is vitally important that we not repeat the “Arab Spring” mistake of seeing the Egypt of our dreams rather than the Egypt that is. What unifies the protesters is anti-Morsi and anti-Brotherhood animus, not a passion for democracy. I’m not saying none of them want true democracy – perhaps 20 percent of Egyptians, maybe more, do. But let’s not fall into the trap of believing a country that, in just the last 18 months, has repeatedly and overwhelmingly voted for the Islamic-supremacist agenda has suddenly gone democratic in the last week.

The Brotherhood’s increasing unpopularity is not a countrywide rejection of sharia supremacism. Morsi grasps this. What makes the Brothers unpopular is their dishonesty and sharp tactics (e.g., promising not to run a presidential candidate then running one, promising minorities an inclusive constitution-writing process then enshrining sharia, etc.). Their image as fighters for Islam is still admired in the society (even if it intensifies minority opposition). And importantly, the personal unpopularity of the Brotherhood does not translate into a commensurate vanishing of popular regard for the Salafist parties, who, as noted above, showed real strength in Egypt’s elections.

In the elections since Mubarak’s fall, Islamic supremacists win going away (2:1 or even 3:1) when the election is seen as being about Islam’s predominance in society. The only close election was Morsi’s win. There are various explanations for that – if the more charismatic and better known Khairat al-Shater had been the candidate, he probably would have won by considerably more than Morsi’s 52-48 margin. But one salient explanation for the comparative narrowness of Morsi’s victory is that the final round of the presidential election – a one-on-one affair that pitted Morsi against Mubarak regime relic Ahmed Shafiq – was seen more as a referendum on Morsi and the Brotherhood than on Islam’s predominance in society. After all, Islamic supremacists had already won the parliamentary elections decisively while the office of the presidency — with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces still calling the shots — was undefined in law and seemed ceremonial.

How is this relevant to Morsi’s current calculations? In last night’s statement, he made a point of calling for parliamentary elections within six months. Morsi knows that it will be hard for the West to fault him when he is calling for elections, the West’s panacea. But notice he is not saying, “Let’s have another presidential election.”

Morsi realizes that he might very well lose a presidential election if one were held in the near term. Regardless of the current protests, I don’t think you can say he would lose for certain. Remember, he won the last time despite his relative obscurity and a lot of public anger over the Brotherhood’s reneging on the promise not to put up a presidential candidate. This is still Egypt. If there were a popular election that came down to an increasingly unpopular Muslim Brotherhood candidate versus a secular progressive (say, Mohammed ElBaradei), I would not count Morsi out. Indeed, only five months ago – weeks after the episode that Western pundits now say ignited today’s unrest: Morsi’s seizure of dictatorial powers (which helped get the sharia constitution approved) – Morsi still had an approval rating of 53 percent (down from 63 at the end of 2012). By contrast, the enthusiasm President Obama, Secretary Clinton and other transnational progressives have for ElBaradei has never been broadly shared in Egypt, where he’s had trouble voting, let alone running for office.

Understandably, Morsi does not want to roll the dice on his own capacity to win another presidential election. But he knows that the combination of the Brotherhood and the Salafists would surely win a parliamentary election. They’ve done it before, resoundingly. And, apart from the military, the most influential institutions and leaders in Egyptian society (al-Azhar, the imams in the mosques, and SheikhYusuf al-Qaradawi) would zealously support them.

Another impressive electoral win for Islamic supremacism would strengthen Morsi’s position. It would underscore that, no matter how robust the opposition protests look on TV, the majority of the country wants sharia. So expect Morsi to continue insisting that he must finish out his term in order to vindicate “democratic legitimacy” while calling for parliamentary elections. He knows it will be very hard for the West to object to this … and he knows that, in Egypt, his Islamic supremacist allies would win at the polls.


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