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Dictators, democrats, and Egypt after Morsi



Egypt's first and thus far only democratically elected President, Dr Mohamed Morsi, has died in court while being tried for espionage following a lengthy period in prison. He is described as an 'Islamist' but never as a democrat. It's as if the two are necessarily mutually exclusive. Must they be? Was he any less democratic than his predecessors?

Then presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi (centre) prior to speaking at a press conference in Cairo on 13 June 2012. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)The 29 year reign of Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011) was characterised by physical and sexual torture of dissidents in prisons, extreme press censorship, suppression of religious minorities, officially sanctioned antisemitism, gender inequity of the worst forms (done to please the most reactionary religious opinion and the Saudi religious authorities funding them), and rampant corruption.

Egypt was regarded as a 'moderate' Arab/Muslim country, an ally of the west. But Egyptians themselves weren't happy. They saw in Tunisia a popular uprising forcing a dictator into exile. Millions of Egyptians flocked to Tahrir Square in 2011. Protests spread to Alexandria and across the country. Security forces maimed and killed and burned and imprisoned, but the protestors persisted. Their democratic stubbornness forced Hosni Mubarak to resign.

The champions of western democracy and freedom at first stood still. The greatest fear was that a legitimate democratic election may lead to an 'Islamist' bogeyman coming to power. But exactly what is an Islamist? We're taught to imagine they're somewhere between the Taliban, al-Qaeda, ISIS and the Salvation Army. They provide social services which friendly governments are too corrupt or inept to provide — schools, hospitals, legal aid etc. Of course, this is all a ruse to hide the real agenda of gaining electoral legitimacy and power.

And once Islamists gain power, they establish a caliphate and never let go. Then they sponsor terrorism at home and abroad, undermining our other 'moderate' allies. Needless to say, our preferred dictators — be they kings or sheiks or military strongmen — also sit on the throne for as long as possible and never let go. But non-Islamist dictators are our buddies.

Following the 2011 revolution, Egyptians held its first free and fair elections. The best and brightest nominated and campaigned. The winner, by a narrow margin, was an American-trained engineer Dr Mohammed Morsi, the candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Bespectacled and overweight (much like this writer!), Morsi was an unusual choice whose gaffes (often inspired by religious conservatism) made him sound like a Muslim Tony Abbott.

Morsi's incompetent and bumbling rule lasted just over 12 months, his decisions often made with little consultation — hardly new for Egypt's dictatorial politics. His final political act, temporarily giving himself and a handpicked committee powers to draft a new constitution outside reach of the courts, was a fundamental breach of the Rule of Law. It led to massive street protests rivalling those of the revolution 12 months prior.


"Supporting dictatorships doesn't make democracies safer."


Morsi's hand-picked defence minister el-Sisi led a military coup. Not much Rule of Law there either — more a case of fighting democratic dictatorship with military dictatorship. Morsi and his political allies were thrown into prison. The MB was banned, just as it had been for most of its existence since founded in 1928. The new regime massacred hundreds of Morsi's supporters and imprisoned over 20,000 of them.

Initially the MB was envisaged by its founder as a conservative social change agent educating people and influencing powerful secular bodies behind the scenes. A kind of Muslim National Civic Council. By the time Morsi came to power, it had been banned and fractured. Members had been imprisoned, tortured and radicalised. Some had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, a tiny number staying on with bin Laden. Most MB folk focused on establishing social service initiatives. Despite their popularity, democratic politics wasn't MB's forte.

Morsi should have learned the lessons of other Islamist parties in Pakistan, Tunisia and Malaysia. Democratic government involves making decisions that will make you deeply unpopular. When election time comes along, cop your loss on the chin and let your opponents take over and make even more unpopular decisions.

Tunisia's Islamist en-Nahda (Renaissance) Party took a leading role in a post-revolution coalition government. Malaysia's PAS party won and lost the state government in Terengganu state. In Pakistan, the rightwing Jamaat-i-Islami once formed coalitions with secular parties. After sympathising with the Taliban, the JI are as popular as pork chops at a Jewish-Muslim interfaith meeting.

Now a major figure in the Democratic Revolution and the first democratically elected Egyptian President has died in the most tragic and humiliating circumstances. It's almost certain he and other MB figures have been tortured, deprived of medical treatment and had other human rights trampled on.

In a National Security Statement delivered while prime minister, Tony Abbott praised el-Sisi for ushering in a religious revolution in Islam. According to Shadi Hamid, far from triggering positive revolution, el-Sisi's repressive rule encourages groups like ISIL. Supporting dictatorships doesn't make democracies safer.



Irfan YusufIrfan Yusuf is a Sydney based lawyer and blogger.

Main image: Then presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi (centre) prior to speaking at a press conference in Cairo on 13 June 2012. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Irfan Yusuf, Egypt, Islam, Hosni Mubarak, Mohamed Morsi, Tahrir Square



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Existing comments

It is a very sad fact that our so called Western democratic governments have supported strong man/dictators in the developing world for much of the post war period as a hedge against communist led "liberation " forces, often supported by Soviet Union or "Red' China. Whether it was Marcos in the Philippines, whose abuses of power I witnessed at first hand , or the dictators in Latin and Central America supported by the U.S who committed heinous crimes against their own people, or the banana republics of Africa whose abuses of human right are legend, our track record is horrific. Mubarak was a 'darling' of the West because , like Nasser, he kept Islamist forces under control . Obviously Morsi was seen by the West as a danger to their interests so his overthrow was no surprise. Sadly the "Arab Spring" is now a fond memory. The risk to western interests were too high to let it bloom.

Gavin O'Brien | 26 June 2019  

For most Westerners Modern Egyptian History and Politics are basically mysterious and unknown. They know more about the Pharaohs. It is interesting that Robert Fisk, the Independent's Beirut based Middle Eastern correspondent, who has lived and reported from the various front lines for over 30 years, shares your view of what happened to Morsi. You are quite correct in drawing attention to Morsi's Abbott-like ineptitude, Whether he and his supporters would have led Egypt out of its long years of misrule is now a moot point. Western intervention in the Middle East has been almost uniformly disastrous, I feel deeply for its inhabitants and their future.

Edward Fido | 27 June 2019  

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