Morsi was No Role Model for Islamic Democrats

by Joshua Tucker on July 18, 2013 · 2 comments

in Comparative Politics,Foreign Policy,Military,Protest,Transitions

The following guest post is from UT-Austin political scientist Jason Brownlee, the author of Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the U.S.-Egyptian Alliance.  The post originally appeared on the website of the Middle East Institute.

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Before 3 July 2013 enters the annals of U.S.-backed anti-Islamist coups[1] it is worth noting that Mohamed Morsi’s ill-fated presidency differs from prior cases. Whereas the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and Hamas posed a threat (however chimeric) to Washington, Morsi quickly won plaudits from U.S. officials. Meanwhile, he menaced the domestic opposition with an autocratic panache. When Morsi exceeded his elected mandate and refused to share power, secularists and Salafists rose against him—while the U.S. Embassy in Cairo urged restraint.

The distinctness of the Egyptian example limits how much one can generalize from this month’s events to the past overthrow or future prospects of elected Islamists. Morsi’s tenure diverged from other cases in three key respects: his assault upon rival state institutions; his alignment with U.S. foreign policy; and his adversarial relationship with more conservative Islamists.

Speaking a week ago to ABC, Brotherhood spokesman Gehad el-Haddad said the Egyptian military’s takeover displayed “all the ingredients, political science-wise, of a coup.”[2] Referring to how the army had shut down pro-Morsi television stations and detained Muslim Brotherhood leaders, he added: “It’s every ingredient of a full police state.” True enough, but if those are the ingredients of autocracy, el-Haddad’s colleagues in the presidential palace had been baking the same pie since last November. That’s when Morsi executed what was, “political science-wise,” a self-coup, or auto-golpe,[3] by placing himself and the Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly above judicial review. Although Morsi magnanimously let his supreme powers expire after voters approved the constitution in a referendum, his supporters besieged Egypt’s highest court to ensure it could not thwart the president.

In subsequent months, Morsi used a familiar bag of dirty tricks against his opponents while his partisans captured the state. A caretaker legislature, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, tried to weaken the judiciary, thugs menaced television stations critical of Morsi,[4] and the public prosecutor targeted the country’s most trenchant dissidents. El-Haddad’s observation notwithstanding, the 3 July coup is not a post hoc validation of Morsi’s own power grab. While some observers may liken the fallen president to Salvador Allende,[5] his tactics recall the worst years of Ferdinand Marcos and Alberto Fujimori, democratically elected presidents who clutched more power than voters gave them.

For the same reason that Morsi belongs in the company of Marcos, it is fallacious to place him and the Brotherhood alongside Islamist parties who were never so repressive. Before the FIS even built a legislative majority, much less started legislating, the Algerian army froze elections. In the Palestinian Authority, Hamas sought to build a bi-partisan coalition[6] after its January 2006 election victory—only to be rebuffed by Fatah, which was in turn being egged on by the George W. Bush administration. The reported U.S.-backed coup attempt of 2007[7] was a final attempt to prevent the two sides from forming a national unity government. In sum, analogies between Morsi and other cases should start with his assault on institutions, not his religious ideology.

In fact, when it came to faith and politics, Morsi demonstrated just how malleable and pragmatic the Brotherhood could be. Less than three years after calling for war on Israel,[8] Morsi was preserving Egypt’s traditional role in guaranteeing Israeli security, including enforcing the embargo on the Gaza Strip. When Morsi brokered a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas last November, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised his “personal leadership”[9] and claimed, “Egypt’s new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone of regional stability and peace.” For years, the Brotherhood had reassured U.S. policymakers that their interests would be safe[10] on its watch.[11] These signals were unlike anything communicated by the FIS or Hamas. Further, Morsi backed words with actions by continuing the foreign policies Washington relished under Hosni Mubarak.[12] When he fell from power he broke the mold: Unlike prior elected Islamists, Morsi was ousted not because of his attitudes toward U.S. priorities but despite them.

While ingratiating himself with the White House and State Department, Morsi alienated Egyptians, including many who had voted for him. Probably the most significant defection from the president’s camp was the Nour Party comprising the ultra-traditional Salafists. Latecomers to the political scene[13]—they had not opposed Mubarak—the Salafists excelled in the elections of 2011-2012 and formed the largest parliamentary bloc after the Brotherhood. In the runoff presidential election of summer 2012 they threw their weight behind the Brotherhood’s standard-bearer. Once Morsi took office, however, Nour leaders were shut out from influential cabinet posts and governorships.[14] So narrow was Morsi’s inner circle that it would not share power with fellow Islamists who rivaled the Brotherhood in their national popularity.

The trans-Atlantic alliance and intra-Islamist rift of Morsi’s administration made strange bedfellows. Between the start of Tamarod protests on 30 June and the coup three days later, Salafists joined with Egyptian liberals in calling for Morsi be deposed. The Obama administration, meanwhile, urged a political solution.[15] Here it is worth emphasizing that the U.S. government liked Morsi not despite his Islamism and not because of his electoral credentials, but because he promoted U.S. goals. Had Morsi opposed U.S. national security objectives, U.S. officials would probably have supported his ouster (and cited his autocratic record as pretext). But he didn’t. And they didn’t. Consequently, Morsi—despite his polarizing downfall—bore little resemblance to his peers in the FIS and Hamas. He was something new: a veteran Islamist toppled after contesting elections and promoting U.S. strategy.

Two weeks into al-Sisi’s transition, the military has committed the worst shooting massacre[16] since Luxor 1997,[17] sectarianism is on the rise,[18] and the Brotherhood is boycotting political negotiations. A spike in instability after the putsch, however, does not retroactively democratize Morsi’s regime. Just halfway through his first year in office, Egypt’s first freely elected president was following an authoritarian playbook. Rather than making his office one pillar in a democratic infrastructure, Morsi trampled on the judicial and media institutions that would have balanced and stabilized his rule. In less than 12 months, he took Egypt from proto-democracy to proto-dictatorship.


[1] Brent Sasley, “Will the Egyptian Coup Affect Other Islamist Groups?,” Mideast Matrix (blog), 9 July 2013, http://mideastmatrix.wordpress.com/2013/07/09/will-the-egyptian-coup-affect-other-islamist-groups/.


[2] Tony Jones, “Interview with Gehad el-Haddad from Nasr City, Egypt,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 11 July 2013, http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2013/s3801374.htm.


[3] Issandr el-Amrani, “Analysis: Morsi’s Auto-Golpe,” The Arabist (blog), 22 November 2012, http://arabist.net/blog/2012/11/22/analysis-morsis-auto-golpe.html.


[4] Jason Brownlee, “Spring of Fury in Egypt,” Jadaliyya, 29 March 2013, http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/10920/spring-of-fury-in-egypt.



[6] Alvaro de Soto, “End of Mission Report, May 2007,” http://image.guardian.co.uk/sys-files/Guardian/documents/2007/06/12/DeSotoReport.pdf.


[7] David Rose, “The Gaza Bombshell,” Vanity Fair, April 2008, http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2008/04/gaza200804.


[8] David D. Kirkpatrick, “Morsi’s Slurs Against Jews Stir Concern,” New York Times, 14 January 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/15/world/middleeast/egypts-leader-morsi-made-anti-jewish-slurs.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&.


[9] Hillary Rodham Clinton, “Remarks with Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr,” 21 November 2012, http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2012/11/200960.htm.


[10] Khairat el-Shatir, “No Need to Be Afraid of Us,” The Guardian, 22 November 2005, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2005/nov/23/comment.mainsection.


[11] “Brotherhood Spokesman Discusses Egypt’s Future,” NPR, 2 February 2011, http://www.npr.org/2011/02/02/133443149/Brotherhood-Spokesman-Discusses-Egypts-Future.


[12] David D. Kirkpatrick, “To Block Gaza Tunnels, Egypt Lets Sewage Flow,” New York Times, 20 February 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/21/world/middleeast/egypts-floods-smuggling-tunnels-to-gaza-with-sewage.html.


[13] Alastair Beach, “Egypt Analysis: Post-Morsi Chaos is the Moment the Salafist al-Nour Party has Waited For,” The Independent, 7 July 2013, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/egypt-analysis-postmorsi-chaos-is-the-moment-the-salafist-alnour-party-has-waited-for-8693849.html.


[14] Andrew Ver Steegh, “Off the Egyptian Press: Brotherhood and Salafist Tensions,” Egypt Source, the Atlantic Council, 22 February 2013, http://www.acus.org/egyptsource/egyptian-press-brotherhood-and-salafist-tensions.


[15] “Obama Calls Mohamed Morsi: President Urges Egypt Leader to Respond to Protestors,” Huffington Post, 2 July 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/02/obama-calls-mohamed-morsi-egypt-protests_n_3531883.html.


[16] Louisa Loveluck, “GlobalPost Investigation: A Massacre in Cairo,” GlobalPost, 16 July 2013, http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/egypt/130716/egypt-cairo-muslim-brotherhood-republican-guard-massacre-july-8.


[17] Alan Cowell and Douglas Jehl, “Luxor Survivors Say Killers Fired Methodically,” New York Times, 24 November 1997, http://www.nytimes.com/1997/11/24/world/luxor-survivors-say-killers-fired-methodically.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm.


[18] Nagaa Hassan, “Sectarian Incitement and Attacks, 30 June to 9 July 2013,” Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, 15 July 2013, http://eipr.org/en/pressrelease/2013/07/15/1765.


{ 2 comments }

Ronan Fitzgerald July 18, 2013 at 10:32 am

This is an interesting post, but I think I have 2 problems with it.
One is that Morsi not being a ‘Role Model for Islamic Democrats’ is a bit of a strawman. No one is really arguing that, only that he *was* demoractically elected, whatever you feel about his power grabs
The second is related to that. I think (and of course Im willing to be corrected on this as Prof Brownlee obviously knows the topic better than me) that the article overstates the amount of power Morsi had. It doesnt mention the judiciary and the old regimes attempts to undermine Morsi, or put in context how much ‘influence’ the MB would have over the security services, or mention where the real power seems to reside (in the military) So Morsi’s power grabs seem more limitied in this context (and par for course, imo, for any regime coming to power in circumstances of weak democratic institutions and a divided opposition)

Scott Monje July 18, 2013 at 11:33 am

I don’t dispute the facts laid out here, but the question that this post raises for me is what the other factions were doing in the course of the past year. We get the impression that they were passive victims of Morsi’s depredations. Is that the case? Now most Americans start from the assumption that professional bureaucrats and judges are politically neutral. It’s not likely that Morsi assumed that. From his perspective, the bureaucracy and the judiciary were filled with Mubarak-era holdovers who resented his rule. The judiciary had already closed down the Brotherhood-dominated lower house of the legislature. Was Morsi justified in fearing that they were about to do the same to the constituent assembly? Also, the New York Times reported shortly after the coup that some of the shortages vanished as soon as the coup occurred and that the shortages may have been manufactured by people in the ministries. Is that true, and if so, does it not validate the argument that the bureaucracy, or some of it, was out to undermine him? Might it not be the case that someone else’s partisans had already captured the state? And how much of Morsi’s performance could have been due to simple inexperience? It’s not like anyone in Egypt has firsthand knowledge of running a democratic government. I don’t mean to make excuses for him. Maybe he deserved what he got. But he wasn’t operating in a vacuum either.

Also, when you say that the U.S. liked him (for reasons of its own) and many Egyptian factions, including the Salafists, did not, I’m a bit confused by the use of the phrase “U.S.-backed anti-Islamist coup.”

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