Democracy and what happens in its name

June 17, 2019…the saddest day in recent memory. The day when Dr. Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically elected President of Egypt, died in a Kangaroo Court defending himself against ridiculous trumped up charges. He was not granted a public funeral, a mark of the fear that even the dead body of a man of truth, inspires in the cowardly hearts of those who manage to kill him. That is because humans can be killed but what they stood for, lives on and continues to inspire others, long after they are gone. May Allahﷻ grant this pious man the best of rewards in Jannah. May the Qur’an become his Hafiz in the Aakhira, as   he was its Hafiz in this life. His death underlines the fact that what is important is not whether we live or die, because everyone dies. What is important is how we die and what we die for. Morsi left his mark in history. I was in Egypt in 2014 and wrote this piece. https://yawarbaig.com/wherearetheleaders/if-i-were-president-of-egypt/

All humans make mistakes and all mistakes are opportunities to learn from. That is their only use. When we learn from them, we don’t make the same mistakes again. When we don’t, we are destined to make the same mistakes over and over until we learn. ‘Nations (people) that don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it.’ Morsi was human and I am sure if he were alive, he would have been very happy to analyze what happened and what should be done differently the next time around.

This is my attempt at trying to learn some lessons from history. Let me warn you in advance that if any analysis is to make meaning or prove useful, it must be divorced from emotion. I know that many of my readers, indeed I myself, can think of many excuses for what Morsi did and explain each action away by seeking refuge behind ‘good intentions’, ‘commitment to Islam’, ‘personal piety of Morsi’ and so on. That would be totally counterproductive. The issue here is not how the supporters of Morsi see his decisions or the actions of his party, but how others did and do. It was that which brought about the tragic events leading to the reinstatement of dictatorship and the death of Morsi and hundreds of his followers. Surely, that is a sacrifice which should be enough for us to ask some tough questions and face some unpleasant facts.

Let us see how things were when Morsi and his party won the election in Egypt. Egypt is an African country but since its conquest by Amr ibn Al A’as ® and Abu Ubaida ® in the time of Omar ibn Al Khattab ®, it has been Arab. Arabic became its language and over the centuries it was the seat of several powerful Muslim Empires, including the Mamluks who in the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260 defeated the army of Hulegu Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan. The first time that a Mongol army had been defeated by anyone. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Ain_Jalut

In more recent times, thanks to its size, population, education, the Arab film industry, Al Azhar University and the global fame in recitation of the Qur’an, Egypt is the leader of the Arab world. Though it is an African country, it is more than likely that anyone who is asked to list the top three most significant countries in Africa and the Arab world, will list Egypt in the Arab world and not in Africa. So, what happens in Egypt has repercussions in the world in general but very particularly and powerfully in the Arab world. Egypt, apart from this is the only country in the Arab world which is not a hereditary monarchy and has had elected leaders, even if all of them, excluding Morsi were elected in sham elections and were really dictators. Yet they were never called ‘King’ or any of its variations and were always ‘President’. This is another reason why Egypt is important because it is a major departure from the norm of rulers and the ruled, in the region. When the so-called Arab Spring happened in Egypt, with the fall of the reigning dictator Hosni Mubarak and the election of Dr. Mohamed Morsi, it was a watershed. It was a marker in history that a new era was about to be ushered in.

The popularity of Morsi and his party was unquestioned. The symbolism of people in Tahrir Square, the energy they displayed, Muslims praying, with Christians standing around them guarding them from any would-be mischief makers, myriad images on TV, social media and print media of the events leading to the final removal of Mubarak and the swearing-in of Morsi, all signaled that the destiny, not only of Egypt, but of the Arab world, was about to change. Very heady stuff or very alarming stuff, depending on who was watching. All went well in the beginning. Morsi was welcomed at home. He met the Coptic Pope and assured him that his government would safeguard the interest of the Christian minority; which though a minority, is very significant and powerful in Egypt and has international support. He was invited by King Abdulla bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia to visit and was accorded full honors as Head of State and promised to help him with financial aid. The fact that he was a Hafiz of the Qur’an was mentioned with almost every mention of him as a person. His humility, piety, clean politics, innocence even, was the talk of the town, as it were. He was welcomed and applauded in all Arab countries and practically everywhere else.

Back home however, expectations were high; in keeping with domestic problems, the chief of them being employment. No matter who the President may be, people need jobs and food on the table. The burden that popularly elected leaders get to bear is to deal with high, most of the time unreasonably high, expectations of those who elected them. Part of the reason is the election campaigns themselves where leaders must promise to pave the streets with gold, in order to win elections. Nobody in today’s world will vote for a leader who speaks the truth and says, ‘After you elect me, you will still have to go to work and work very hard to feed your family. I will promise you a clean government, law and order, safety and security, an education system that will create skilled people over the years, a working medical and health care system and clean and safe cities. But you are responsible for yourselves and your families and you must pay taxes to enable the government to give you all of what I promised you.’ That is perhaps the best speech, which though totally truthful, is guaranteed never to get you elected. So, leaders promise to put not merely bread, but Biryani or Lahm Mandi on every table for every meal at the expense of the state. I am saying this figuratively but the idea in any election campaign is to make the alternative to status quo look so attractive that people will be inspired to do whatever it takes to bring in the new regime. This is the system followed all over the world with its consequences clearly visible to anyone who chooses to see. Most choose not to. Ditto Egypt.

Wikipedia has this to say about the events of the time:

As president, Morsi issued a temporary constitutional declaration in November 2012 that in effect granted him unlimited powers and the power to legislate without judicial oversight or review of his acts as a pre-emptive move against the expected dissolution of the second constituent assembly by the Mubarak-era judges. The new constitution that was then hastily finalized by the Islamist-dominated constitutional assembly, presented to the president, and scheduled for a referendum before the Supreme Constitutional Court could rule on the constitutionality of the assembly, was described by independent press agencies not aligned with the regime as an “Islamist coup”. These issues, along with complaints of prosecutions of journalists and attacks on nonviolent demonstrators, led to the 2012 protests. As part of a compromise, Morsi rescinded the decrees. In the referendum on the new constitution, it was approved by approximately two-thirds of voters.

On 30 June 2013, protests erupted across Egypt, in which protesters called for the president’s resignation. In response to the events, Morsi was given a 48-hour ultimatum by Egypt’s military to meet their demands and to resolve political differences, or else they would intervene by “implementing their own road map” for the country. He was unseated on 3 July by a military coup council consisting of Defense Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, the Grand Imam of Al Azhar Ahmed el-Tayeb, and Coptic Pope Tawadros II. The military suspended the constitution and appointed the President of the Supreme Constitutional Court of Egypt, Adly Mansour, as the interim president. The Muslim Brotherhood protested against the military coup, but the pro-Morsi protests were crushed in the August 2013 Rabaa massacre in which at least 817 civilians were killed. Opposition leader ElBaradei quit in protest at the massacre.

In simple terms what are we seeing here (what did the people see)?

  1. Someone who promised to be democratic, showing that inside the façade lives a dictator who didn’t take long to have himself declared, “granted him unlimited powers and the power to legislate without judicial oversight or review of his acts”. {Public perception: Alarm, chagrin, rage!!! Did we go through all this to get another Mubarak?}
  2. And then he does something that no leader must EVER do. He, “As part of a compromise, Morsi rescinded the decrees.”  {Opposition’s reaction: Ah!Gotcha!! He is weak. Bring him down. Get rid of him. We respect strength. Nothing else.} The rest is history.

Sisi took over; arrested Morsi, slaughtered protestors and the Arab Spring turned into a wet squib.

Morsi (and his party and government) made four cardinal mistakes, which proved suicidal.

  1. Instead of focusing on economic development, they got bogged down in ideology. Various statements were made, including by Morsi himself, praising democratic elections and thereby directly and indirectly criticizing (Arab) monarchies.
  2. Instead of focusing on building on the goodwill of the minority Christian and Jewish population and bringing them all together on one Egyptian identity, Morsi and his party raised the boogie of the Shari’ah and played right into the hands of their opposition as well as raising the alarm with others. The attempt at trying to get ‘unlimited powers and to legislate without judicial oversight’ were grist to the mill; a Godsend for anyone planning to bring Morsi and his party down. The tragedy is that the only people who seem to have been blind to this was Morsi & Co.
  3. Instead of focusing on internal issues of employment, hunger, health care, education and others, it appeared that there was more focus on external issues, be it the condition of Palestinians or giving aid to disaster affected people in Indonesia. This coming from a country which almost literally was living off aid from America and other Arab countries.
  4. Perhaps the most lethal of them; imagining that personal piety and incorruptibility is a substitute for political sagacity and wisdom.

It bears to note that Sisi was Morsi’s Army Commander, reporting to him as the President and at least in the beginning, at his command and mercy, even to retain his job. Yet Morsi failed to control, let alone neutralize him. Morsi’s death is tragic. But not surprising. His fate was sealed when he displayed weakness.

What could he and his party have done? Here’s my two-cents worth as a rank outsider who by virtue of that, perhaps has a clearer view than those involved. Objectivity and perspective are a function of distance.

  1. Homework. What seems to be clear is that the entire turn of events, winning the election, overwhelming support of all people including those normally opposed, culminating in being able to form a government, came as a big surprise to Morsi and his party. I don’t believe they really believed that they could win. So, they were not prepared to move from their position of at best being in opposition, to being the ruling party. Their reactions seem to me to be just that, reactions, and therefore unplanned. They were acting in the moment without a clear (or any) view of why they were doing what they were doing or what the likely consequences of that may turn out to be. Everything seems to have been a surprise; some pleasant and some shocking. Clearly for all aspiring leaders, homework is critical to success. The Shadow Cabinet in the British Parliament is a brilliant example of preparation. Nothing like simulation to understand the complexity of leadership and how to prepare for it. But then, only those who expect to win, prepare for it. And sadly, those who don’t prepare, squander the gains.
  2. Celebrating is for others. Keep your head squarely on your shoulders and forget about celebrating. Let others do it. You, the leader, must understand that when the celebration is over, it is you to whom everyone is going to look for the future. So, what do you have to show them? Can you deliver on what you promised? If yes, then when? If no, then what is your plan to mitigate the inevitable disappointment? Once again it comes down to preparation, anticipation and the ability to deliver on your promises. People expect a change in status quo. That is what they voted for. They didn’t vote for everything to be the same except the name of the leader. No matter how ‘unreasonable’ that may seem to you, the leader, that is what people expect and you must give it to them. Maybe not everything, but enough to keep their hopes high. If you don’t, then the disappointment after an unexpected victory is proportionate to the joy.  
  3. Focus. For any leader, even more for the head of a major nation like Egypt, there are a million demands on his attention; a million causes all clamoring for him to deal with them. Focus in the art of ignoring fluff. What is fluff in this case? It is everything that didn’t get you elected. Other countries didn’t get you elected, neither did their rulers. Neither did anything except the hopes of your own people. So, deal with them before you do anything else. People elected Morsi not only because they loved him (many didn’t) but because he represented a change from the horrible dictatorship of Mubarak. If that change is not clearly visible, then it raises anxiety. By definition, that anxiety will be disproportionate especially with those who were perhaps anxious in the first place and elected Morsi because they had no alternative. That means the Christians and Liberals. They need reassurance. Constant reassurance that their decision was not wrong and that they picked the right leader who will deliver on his promises and safeguard their interests.

In such situations, people’s patience, tolerance and the willingness to take pain, are always in very short supply. In Morsi and his party’s case, they bore the burden of the negative image of Islam and his party which was created by the global Islamophobia industry that all Muslims are the target of, but at a much higher level. Fears arising out of that, no matter how illogical they may have seemed to Morsi and his supporters, had to be allayed. Perception is reality, even when it is erroneous. You can’t run away from it. You must face it and lay it to rest through your visible actions. As they say about justice, “Not only must it be done, but it must appear to be done.” This holds true even more in this situation. Solution? Communicate, communicate, communicate. Morsi didn’t. On the other hand, his government’s actions fanned the flames and enhanced those fears. The resultant protests and all that followed was certainly not unexpected, except to those who refused to see the writing on the wall.

  • Economic Development. Generate employment. Infrastructure projects, service projects, education and tourism. I have mentioned these in detail in my other article quoted above so won’t repeat that here. But basically, give people something to think about other than politics. Get them off the street and out of the tea shops and into the workplace where they can earn some money. This was all doable provided there had been a focus on it. Apart from the aid from other countries, I have mentioned in my article different ways in which a government can access funds and resources to generate employment and boost the economy. Egypt is a resource rich country with a highly capable population. To make it economically strong is not a difficult task. What has drained is decades of dictatorship and the corruption that generates. A democratically elected, clean government was just what the doctor ordered for Egypt. Sadly, it never took off.
  • Act with decisiveness. A wrong decision pushed through does less damage than a right decision that you are tentative and hesitant in implementing. Morsi’s hardest task was to deal with a military that has gotten used to ruling. Like Pakistan, where the army runs the show behind the scenes and political leaders dance to their tune. This was probably the hardest task that Morsi had; a legacy not to his liking or of his creation, but his responsibility, nevertheless. What should he have done? I don’t think any elaboration is necessary. The supremacy of civilian rule needed to be established and institutionalized in a hostile environment. That needed a level of wisdom, diplomacy and ruthlessness, which Morsi was not capable of. Like major life saving surgery, it would have been painful and messy but needed to be done with decisiveness and speed. That didn’t happen. Maybe Morsi was too decent a human being for that. Whatever be the reason, the result was the resurrection of dictatorship.

All that remains is to mourn the passing of a good man and of the chance of a change of destiny for Egypt. May his memory be honored, and may others learn lessons so that what he wanted to achieve may one day be achieved by others. For men die. Not ideas or dreams. Dreams live on in the hearts of people, to one day emerge and usher in a world that others, like Morsi died for.