July 3, 2013 8:52 pm

Revolutionary standard-bearer finds ignominious end

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Just two months after his election last year, Egypt’s president Mohamed Morsi was riding high. The Islamist politician once derided as a “spare tyre” had helped broker a peace deal between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, taken bold trips to China and Iran, and managed to outmanoeuvre the country’s long-dominant generals to push the military out of politics. His approval rating reached 60 per cent.

But in seven months Mr Morsi went from a standard-bearer of Egypt’s 2011 revolution – embraced, albeit reluctantly, by a critical sliver of liberals and leftists – to a man being hounded out of office.

Huge forces and interests were aligned against him, and the moribund economy was in many ways beyond his control. But political observers say he was also the wrong man for the wrong job at the wrong time.

“In the end, if you look at the whole picture, he was doomed from the beginning,” said Stephane Lacroix, an expert on political Islam and Egypt at the Paris Institute of Political Science, or Sciences-Po.

“Structurally there was so much resistance to him from the security apparatus, the judiciary, the media, he would have needed to have been extremely bright and consensual to appease the various forces,” he said. “But he did exactly the contrary. He said, ‘I’m the president and I can do what I want.’ He didn’t realise he was in a very weak position.”

Analysts and opposition activists trace Mr Morsi’s downfall to his constitutional declaration last November, when he placed his government above judicial scrutiny and granted himself extraordinary powers in writing the constitution. He later rescinded the decree in the face of mass protests. But the move itself – along with a violent attack by his supporters on a peaceful protest camp – destroyed the trust of a key constituency of liberals and leftists who had given the Islamist president the benefit of the doubt.

“When he issued his constitutional coup, he was addressing his own crowd, saying we have to act fast, saying something like, ‘We will eat them at lunch before they roast us for dinner,” said Nervana Mahmoud, a commentator on Egyptian affairs. “He failed to see that he was alienating the group of liberals who voted for him in the election.”

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Mohamed Morsi, often spoke about how his legitimacy stemmed from victory at the polls. What he failed to understand is that legitimacy in a democracy transcends the ballot box; elections are necessary but hardly sufficient. In the way he ruled over the past year, Mr Morsi squandered his legitimacy and his opportunity alike.

From then on, the presidents’s circle narrowed as all but his Islamist allies abandoned him, resigning from his cabinet and from a 100-member commission tasked with drawing up a new constitution. He appointed Brotherhood loyalists to key positions in the central government, the provinces and the upper chamber of parliament, which became the effective legislative body after courts dissolved the lower house.

“Because Morsi was more and more alone, he started living in this bunker mentality,” said Mr Lacroix. “He was convinced it was a conspiracy against them.”

Another mark against the president came when he and his allies held a referendum on a constitution many felt was deeply flawed, despite protests from the opposition. The Brotherhood’s political machinery turned out a 64 per cent victory but voter turnout was only 36 per cent, which experts warned gave the document little credibility.

One analyst described Mr Morsi’s rule as a “ballotocracy” – the view that winning an election gives a president the right to dictate.

Meanwhile, the country’s economy continued to falter, angering the mass of private sector and informal economy breadwinners who were not recipients of public sector salary increases but bore the brunt of rising prices. Mr Morsi’s administration bungled a deal with the IMF and began to reach out more and more to wealthy Arab states for financial help.

As the popular movement against him began gaining steam during the past two months, Mr Morsi turned increasingly to his ultra-Islamist allies. But this just added fuel to his opponents’ anger.

The growing discontent was exacerbated by his government’s appointments to key arts, education, media, news and religious posts. State television began to change, increasingly airing political programmes and patriotic songs instead of popular soap operas and sexy video clips, raising fears that he was trying “to mould Egyptians to think like the brothers,” said Wael Nawra, a commentator and liberal activist.

Mr Morsi’s ham-fisted efforts to shore up supporters ahead of massive June 30 protests may have sealed his fate. At a conference on Syria last month, Mr Morsi stood idly as hardline clerics called on Egyptians to join the violent struggle against Bashar al-Assad and condemned Shia Muslims as infidels.

The president’s endorsement of the rhetoric stunned the country’s diplomats. Because of his proximity to violent jihadi groups, he was accused of partial complicity in an attack on the country’s main Coptic Christian church and the massacre of four Shia in their homes.

Alienated from all but his most ardent supporters by his own missteps, he began taking advice only from the Brotherhood and acting solely in its interests, his critics contend.

“Once you come to power you should start to get rid of your old complexes and paranoias,” said Mr Nawra. “But unfortunately he still placed the Brotherhood’s interest and enterprises before Egypt.”

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