The Misadventures of Morsi

Commenting on Reuel Marc Gerecht’s thesis that having Islamists take power was probably a necessary step for political liberalization in the Arab world, Ross Douthat writes:

As I said two years ago, I have serious doubts about whether Gerecht’s thesis — which sees Islamist rule in Middle Eastern countries as a necessary-if-fraught step on the way to any kind of liberal democracy in the region — can serve as a guide for responsible U.S. policymaking. But it has always offered the most plausible script for how the Islamic world might eventually escape from its current cycle of repression feeding extremism feeding repression and so on.

The question is whether this week’s events in Egypt are following the Gerecht script or not. Is the failure of the Morsi government an example of how “time moves quickly now,” with the Egyptian public swiftly seeing Islamist rule for what it is and rejecting it decisively, opening the door for more liberal alternatives? Or is this a case where the process Gerecht hopes for hasn’t even had time to get off the ground, and the military’s intervention will just return us to the same old cycle of secular dictatorships pre-empting democracy in order to keep the lid on fundamentalists, whose popular appeal endures and eventually prompts another upheaval down the road? The Morsi government was in power long enough to produce a mass protest movement against the Muslim Brotherhood, but was it in power long enough to actually discredit the Brotherhood (at least in its current form) as the most plausible alternative to military rule? If the military actually holds new elections now, will they produce anything like a viable third way between Islamism and dictatorship, Morsi and Mubarak, the minaret and the tank?

If Douthat’s first possibility is correct, the swift failure of the Muslim Brotherhood was largely Morsi’s.

Jeffrey Goldberg recalls:

A few months ago, King Abdullah II of Jordan told me about his meetings with Mohamed Mursi, the now-deposed president of Egypt. The king wasn’t fond of Mursi, both because the Egyptian was a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and because Abdullah found Mursi exceedingly stupid.

“I see a Muslim Brotherhood crescent developing in Egypt and Turkey,” the king said. He despises the movement, partly because it is revanchist, fundamentalist and totalitarian, and partly because in Jordan it seeks his overthrow. “The Arab Spring highlighted a new crescent in the process of development.”

The saving grace in Egypt, he said, was that Mursi seemed too unsophisticated to successfully pull off his vision. “There’s no depth to the guy,” he said of Mursi. The king compared him unfavorably to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist prime minister of Turkey. Like Mursi, the king asserted, Erdogan was also a false democrat, but one with patience. “Erdogan once said that democracy for him is a bus ride,” Abdullah said. “Once I get to my stop, I’m getting off.”

(Goldberg notes that Erdogan’s style has now lost some of its luster.)

Eric Trager describes how Morsi became president. He had no charisma and didn’t win based on his charm but on the effective organization of the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus:

Morsi thus won the presidency without having to be liked – thereby making it easy for people to start hating him as soon as his many flaws became apparent.

Morsi’s total reliance on the Brotherhood for his political success had another damaging effect: it made pleasing his Brotherhood colleagues a top priority, even though he campaigned promising to govern inclusively.

Morsi thus continually expanded the number of Brotherhood ministers and governors with each round of appointments, further alienating non-Islamists.

Trager then goes on to recount how Morsi sought to seize power for himself last November. Though this is slightly off topic, it’s important for another reason.

David Kirkpatrick is the Cairo bureau chief of the New York Times, an thus one of the more influential reporters in the region. He sees no threat from the Muslim Brotherhood as a political party. The other day he tweeted:

Morsi’s power grab last year was an attempt to bring the judiciary under his control but the reporter for the New York Times didn’t bring it up. (The context of the tweet is important too. Someone had argued that there was no justification for arresting Morsi.) Instead he tweeted that Morsi had been arrested unjustly before.

It’s important to remember that the New York Times’ lead reporter from Egypt is an apologist for the Muslim Brotherhood generally, and Morsi, in particular.