Mark Lavie
Journalist, analyst, author

Egypt’s Morsi, dead at 67, never had a chance

Why the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring failed their followers, and other lessons from the blunder of a democracy in a society not set up for it
Egypt's ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi sits in a defendant cage in the Police Academy courthouse in Cairo, Egypt, May 8, 2014. (Tarek el-Gabbas/AP/File)
Egypt's ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi sits in a defendant cage in the Police Academy courthouse in Cairo, Egypt, May 8, 2014. (Tarek el-Gabbas/AP/File)

Mohammed Morsi represented the Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and they’re fundamentalist Islamist terrorists. Everyone “knows” that.

But Morsi was the first freely, democratically elected president of Egypt in 7,000 years. And so far, the only one. Morsi died after fainting in court, where he was on trial for his life on many charges, including espionage and murder.

He was set up for failure from the beginning. Before the beginning.

I was there. I watched Morsi and democracy fail. I even wrote a book about it, called “Broken Spring,” about the failure of the Arab revolution called Arab Spring—and about  the failure of the mainstream media, of which I was part, to explain it properly.

Before we get started, yes, of course I know about the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology of fundamentalist Islam, Sharia law, and all the rest. But what you’ll read here, instead, will be the lessons of the failure of “democracy” in a society that is not set up for it.

Mohammed Morsi was one of the most ineffective leaders I’ve seen in five decades of journalism. He addressed his nation with table-pounding, barely comprehensible tirades. He was the opposite of charismatic.

That’s no surprise. He wasn’t set to be the Muslim Brotherhood candidate for president in the first place. That was supposed to be the actual leader of the Brotherhood, Khairat el-Shater, a much more effective politician. He was disqualified by the Presidential Election Commission on the flimsiest of technicalities.

The election body, and the courts that hamstrung Morsi later, were dominated by loyalists of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, who stepped down after three decades as Egypt’s dictator following the huge demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and elsewhere.

  • The first lesson is that all the institutions need to be on board with democracy if it’s going to work.

So the Brotherhood was set up to lose the election—but the forces for change lost it instead. The revolutionaries who turned millions of disgruntled Egyptians out into the streets in Arab Spring failed their followers—they began squabbling among themselves when elections were called.

Instead of uniting behind a single liberal, relatively secular candidate for president, each faction fielded its own candidate. Thirteen ran in the first round—Morsi and 12 others. So Morsi and (in a resounding slap to the revolutionaries) Mubarak’s last prime minister were left standing for the runoff. No reformers. Morsi won.

  • The second lesson is that groups with similar ideas must compromise with each other and form large blocs in order to have a chance to win a nationwide office, like president. Just being against the regime isn’t enough. You have to be for something in common.

Morsi really did try to reform the government and the economy, but time and again, the courts struck down his proposals. The courts, of course, were dominated by judges from the Mubarak era.

There were several rounds of elections in the post-Mubarak era. Some were to approve a constitution. Others were to elect a parliament. All showed up basic weaknesses in the society.

It’s hard to run a proper election when the literacy rate of the voters is only about 70 percent. To their credit, Egypt is changing that for the better—younger Egyptians are much more likely to read and write than their parents are. But at the time, in 2012, many voters could not make up their minds for themselves about the candidates and their policies. Many voted tribally. Others looked for green in the party symbols, signifying Islamic parties. So the extremist Islamist Salafists, who probably represent no more than 10 percent of the people, got a quarter of the seats in the parliament.

  • Lesson number three is that it’s impossible to have a working democracy if the voters do not have the tools they need to make rational choices.

Three supreme ironies remain today, after the death of Mohammed Morsi.

One is that his short-lived government (just one year) did not try to force radical Islam down anyone’s throat. It did not try to turn Egypt into a terrorism exporter. Its rule was moderate and reasonable. The extremism came from the Salafists, who became bitter enemies of the “accommodating and compromising” Brotherhood.

The second is that Egypt’s ties with Israel remained on solid footing throughout the year Morsi was in power. There was never a move to downgrade relations, much less abrogate the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

The third irony is that just as the remnants of his regime stifled Morsi at every turn, sparking the second popular revolution that unseated his Brotherhood regime — Hosni Mubarak, now a 91-year-old recluse, has outlived Mohammed Morsi.

About the Author
MARK LAVIE has been covering the Middle East as a news correspondent, analyst and author since he moved to Israel in 1972. Most of his work has been in radio news, starting as an anchor and reporter for Israel Radio's English-language news service and continuing as Middle East correspondent for radio networks including NPR, NBC, Mutual, and CBC in Canada, then 15 years with The Associated Press, both radio and print. He won the New York Overseas Press Club's Lowell Thomas Award for “Best radio interpretation of foreign affairs” in 1994. His second book, “Why Are We Still Afraid?” is a personal look at 46 years of Israeli history, and it comes to a clear and surprising conclusion.
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