Friday, December 7, 2012

Morsi's Power Hunger

Yesterday was yet another depressing day for Egypt. With violence and anger escalating, the Egyptian president took to the podium. And like his predecessor before him, he squandered the opportunity to bridge the divides of his nation. Instead, he further exacerbated the situation with the familiar mix of meaningless concessions and meaningful threats. As Hafsa Halawa tweeted in response, “This is the worst-case scenario…This speech isn’t making me angry. It’s making me sad. So very sad.”

A slew of articles have been written these past few weeks declaring Morsi the new dictator of Egypt – or at least, the next dictator in the making. In an article entitled “Shame on Anyone Who Ever Thought Mohammad Morsi Was a Moderate,” Eric Trager argues the Muslim Brotherhood is inherently inimical to pluralism and democratic dialogue. In another article, Trager focuses specifically on “Morsi’s uncompromising demeanor.” In a similar vein, Khalil al-Anani examines Morsi’s “autocratic disposition” that has led him to take the “strongman route” to governing.

Clearly, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood generally have acted in severely troubling ways since the Egyptian revolution. They have broken promises about how many seats they would contend for in parliament, whether they would run for president, and who they would appoint in their administration. The relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood proper, their purportedly independent Freedom and Justice Party, and the presidency remains as murky as ever. They have purged many of their members who have not adhered to the official line. And they seem to have a genuine disregard for the needs of both religious and political minorities. As Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted, “Morsi has made the transition from dissident to despot at an impressive rate of speed.” However, it is not clear that their actions reveal an inherently authoritarian disposition as Trager and al-Anani contend.

In everyday life, we tend to overemphasize the importance of people’s dispositions in interpreting behavior while underemphasizing the importance of the environment. This is what social psychologists call the fundamental attribution error. Pretend you are at a red light when your car dies. As you try to restart the engine, you miss the light turning green and the car behind you begins to honk furiously.  Naturally, you think the other driver is an impatient jerk. But in reality, he’s in a rush to the hospital because his wife is giving birth. Meanwhile, he unfairly thinks you’re an idiot for not accelerating fast enough. If the roles were reversed, you would be the one honking at him - and you likely don’t think of yourself as a jerk.

We can make the fundamental attribution error while analyzing politics as well. Maybe Morsi was born to be a dictator – or maybe the political environment has led him to take dictatorial actions. Marc Lynch nailed it when he likened the Egyptian political environment to one tragic game of Calvinball. He explains, “the one constant in Cairo's trainwreck of a transition seems to be the constantly changing rules and absolute institutional uncertainty.” With the rules of the game ever changing – and just as importantly being changed but multiple competing actors – for all intents and purposes there are no rules.

The Egyptian political arena is now a free for all. We might even call it anarchic. And as any international relations scholar knows, anarchic systems bring out the worst in actors. With no guarantees of survival and no frameworks to build trust, the only option is to selfishly maximize your own security in every way possible. Countries therefore build armies. Morsi instead issued a declaration granting him unprecedented powers. Morsi feared the courts would dismantle the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly, so he launched a preemptive strike against the judiciary. He outplayed the courts in Calvinball in an attempt to secure the Islamist position. But in the process he plunged Egypt further into Calvinball anarchy that exacerbates the fears of all sides. By seeking security, he made everyone less secure.

As the New York Times reported, “each side of the political battle is now convinced that it faces an imminent coup.” The Islamists have learned the lesson of Algeria that electoral victories do not guarantee political survival. They are therefore hypersensitive to any move that seeks to replace their vision for majoritarian democracy for the sake of liberalism. In turn, the non-Islamists fear the intentions of the Islamists and what they will do with the power they have accrued through the ballot box. This tension between democracy and liberalism (see Jason Brownlee) has always existed in Egypt, but this Calvinball transition has intensified it to the breaking point.
And for that, we must direct our blame towards the SCAF. They failed to establish a transparent transition with clear rules of the game. From the very start, they caused confusion by promulgating their constitutional declaration in March 2011, superseding the constitutional referendum held just weeks prior. At the time, Nathan Brown and Kristen Stilt worried about the “procedural incoherence and inconsistency” of the constitutional changes. In other words, Calvinball had begun. They then seemed do everything possible - either by design or by folly - to cultivate this environment of uncertainty, fear, and violence. Eventually, it would lead to their undoing at the hands of Morsi. But the environment still persists – and it has made all Egyptian political trends to seek power for the sake of their survival. And as the most powerful trend, the Brotherhood is winning that fight for power.
So maybe Morsi and the Brotherhood were power hungry all along. Or maybe the Calvinball environment created by the SCAF has made them more power hungry. Admittedly, this likely seems academic to Egyptians who fear what that hunger for power will do to their country. But the right policy towards Egypt changes in these two scenarios. If the Brotherhood always was and always will be dictatorial, then the US should isolate it now. If the Calvinball environment is instead bringing the worst out of all Egyptian political trends, then the US should work with the Brotherhood and all other political trends to help establish clear rules to the game.  
On a personal level, my deep support goes to all Egyptians who seek a better future for their country. A future that finds the right balance between democracy and liberalism. A future that Hafsa and all Egyptians can be happy about.

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