Saturday, December 08, 2012

Death Knell for an Old Political Style

In his fatally belated public address on Thursday, Mohamed Morsi was a man reduced, reading awkwardly from an underwhelming script, mouthing stale words without energy or conviction. He looked very much like a party elder preaching to the faithful, not a president reaching out to a divided nation. What a sharp contrast from the president-elect taking the oath of office before jubilant crowds in Tahrir Square, or the responsible leader who addressed the nation hours after the tragic Asyut train crash.
In the most acute crisis of his presidency, Mohamed Morsi didn’t rise to the occasion, and couldn’t even deliver the bare minimum of an effective narrative. This isn’t because he’s a dictator or a stupid man or a stubborn man, but a captive of a defunct political style.

From unpromising beginnings, Morsi began to craft a credible presidential persona. Banishing SCAF from politics in August earned him huge political capital, making people like me rethink our initial conviction that he’s just a front for the mastermind, Khairat al-Shater. I started to see Morsi as a man who may be able to grow into the job of president and out of the straitjacket of a conservative party leader.

Positive evidence started to rack up. His outreach to China, Iran, and the Nile Basin states showed some creative thinking, promising to fulfill the aspiration of many that Egypt regain its regional prominence after decades of kowtowing to American diktat. Obviously Morsi is no radical, and he coordinated closely with the Americans on every new move in foreign policy. But he seemed to aspire to some sort of parity rather than the servile clientelism of Sadat and Mubarak.

His advisers were a pretty diverse group of both FJP members and non-MB professors, media people, and legal experts. They certainly surpassed in professionalism and expertise any of past Egyptian presidents’ circle of sycophantic viziers. Morsi’s team was conscious of the contrast and played it up. One of his advisers made a convincing case that they were creating new practices of collective deliberation and decision-making within the executive.

When discontent with Morsi’s policies and especially the constituent assembly could no longer be ignored, he held one-on-one meetings with former presidential candidates and Mohamed ElBaradei, containing opposition before it could coalesce and appearing magnanimous and presidential.

It’s a mystery then why Morsi abandoned his budding presidential leadership style when dealing with the crisis created by his November 21 decrees. First of all, the decrees were revealed suddenly and without explanation by the presidential spokesman, leaving the field wide open for critics and challengers to spin Morsi as worse than Mubarak. Second, Morsi’s address the next day before supporters outside al-Ittehadeyya was a pitiful production that didn’t even try to appeal to a wider public. A grave event such as a constitutional declaration requires a dignified, televised address to the nation, with a full explanation of the threats the president said compelled him to issue the decree. This should be pretty basic for a president who’s in power by the grace of millions of voters.

Instead, in a surreal scene, Morsi looked like he was at an election rally, yelling into a microphone about conspiracies, his bodyguards and chief of staff hovering uncomfortably. Soon after, members of his party appeared on talk shows parroting the same line, alluding to shadowy conspiracies and armed thugs, expecting us all to fall in line as if we’re the party rank-and-file.

From that moment, Morsi ceased acting like a president and reverted to the smaller profile of the conservative party leader. His mode of crisis management was to entrench himself within the MB tribe rather than surround himself with a critical mass of broad public opinion supportive of his efforts to take on the last vestiges of the deep state.

Instead of broadening his support base, Morsi narrowed his horizons and fired up the fervor of true believers, turning this into some sort of culture war between self-professed authentic Islamists and self-appointed enlightened secularists. Instead of promoting his role as steward of compromise on the constitution, he tragically undermined the painstaking work of the constituent assembly, overlooking its sovereign status and unilaterally granting it a two-month extension without consultation. Instead of taking fledgling opposition seriously, he belittled it until it metastasized into a real threat not just to his tenure, but to one of the most precious gains of the revolution: the first real elected presidency in modern Egyptian history.

It’s easy for armchair analysts like me to sit and list all the wrong things that Mohamed Morsi did, but I don’t mean this piece in the spirit of vitriol and hatred that has swept all quarters in Egypt since November 21. My point is simply that it’s no longer possible to run the country without chronic popular participation. Since November 21, Morsi’s instincts have reverted to the old politics of elite machinations, excluding the little people from “high politics” by throwing them some economic crumbs, or trying to shush them with talk of threats and conspiracies.

That notion of limited democracy, of kissing up to the people until you have their vote and then ignoring them completely for four years, is expired for Egypt. Already under Mubarak’s vicious autocracy, Egyptians were crafting the most ingenious means of having their say on public matters, even when their say “didn’t change anything.” Now that everything’s changed, they’re punishing every official who dares overreach. No Egyptian president now can afford to act like a boss who knows best. Consent must be secured not just at the ballot box, but at every critical juncture.

Mohamed Morsi’s greatest mistake is not that he tried to be a dictator, but that he thought he could act first and explain much later. Aspiring future presidents should take note.