The crisis of government isn’t over
The Islamists are fast losing their popularity, but their opponents are still too weak and divided to vote them out of office
Jan 5th 2013 (CAIRO)
IN A new year’s message Muhammad Badia, the Supreme Guide of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, advised his followers to temper resilience with magnanimity. “Be like the tree which, when battered by stones, drops its finest fruit,” he said.
His most prominent adherent, President Muhammad Morsi, has certainly proven resilient. Ignoring a tide of opposition that has swollen since he took office in June, Mr Morsi pushed through a controversial referendum in December to endorse a new constitution. Since then he has faced down challenges from Egypt’s restless judges, braved serial resignations of advisers and ministers, and parried opponents by sponsoring a national dialogue that is actually being held just by Brothers and their allies. At elections next month for the lower house of parliament, the Brotherhood’s party looks set to do well. In the interim, thanks to an election last year when only 10% voted, it controls the previously weak upper house, which the new constitution has helpfully turned into Egypt’s sole if temporary legislature.
Yet Mr Morsi has shown little magnanimity. Instead of using his right to appoint a third of seats in the upper house to make it more diverse, he put in more yes-men. The Brotherhood’s thugs have been allowed to beat up protesters outside the president’s office. Its lawyers, legislators and allies in the media have launched increasingly sharp attacks on his critics. Egypt’s public prosecutor, recently appointed by Mr Morsi over furious objections from his peers, has ordered a probe into a television satirist, Bassem Youssef, whom Islamist litigators accuse of insulting the president. His crime? Using as a prop a red, heart-shaped pillow with Mr Morsi’s face pictured on it.
The Supreme Guide also called on the Brothers to struggle against “opportunists” whose goal is to “undermine the popular will” and to “foil the Islamist project”. Other darker mutterings are being heard in Islamist quarters. An article on a Brotherly website, for instance, hints of a conspiracy against Egypt’s new order by Coptic Christians and Zionists, orchestrated by an American magnate, Sheldon Adelson.
The mood on Egypt’s streets is bitter and polarised. The coming general election will be the seventh time since the revolution of January 25th, 2011, that Egyptians have been asked to queue for hours in national polls. In December’s flawed and rushed referendum, fewer than a third of registered voters turned out. Richer and better-educated ones largely voted against Mr Morsi’s constitution but the rural poor voted overwhelmingly in favour, upping the overall yes vote to 64%, enough to render futile the widespread claims of fraud.
Private opinion polls suggest that the Brotherhood, though still adept at mobilising its core of support, is increasingly mistrusted. Poverty and joblessness have increased since the revolution nearly two years ago. When Mr Morsi’s cabinet clumsily unveiled but then retracted a set of tax increases in December, further delaying a long-awaited debt-relief deal with the IMF, a ratings agency downgraded Egypt onto a par with stricken Greece. Many hotels are empty. Three-quarters of the Nile cruise fleet was grounded over the Christmas high season. Foreign currency is drying up. The central bank has allowed the Egyptian pound to depreciate for the first time since the revolution. Inflation is set to gather pace. Egyptians are painfully aware that, to secure the IMF’s proffered $4.8 billion loan, which could unlock a lot more foreign aid, severe austerity measures, including cuts in energy subsidies, must be imposed.
But Mr Morsi’s troubles have yet to help his non-Islamist opponents. Despite efforts to forge a united front, secular liberals have failed to provide a convincing alternative or to create strong networks. But this could change. Some sense a coming reaction not only against the Brothers, whose image of piety and competence has been tarnished, but against the Islamist trend in general. Yet few expect this to happen in time to affect next month’s election.
The Brothers may be more worried by a challenge from their right. In the general election a year ago, puritan Salafist parties got a quarter of the seats. The country’s most charismatic Salafist politician, Hazem Abu Ismail, has announced an alliance with a group of senior figures in the largest Salafist party, who recently resigned en masse in protest against its doctrinal rigidity. With his folksy charm putting the dour Mr Morsi in the shade, and with the Brothers blamed for failing to fix things, the Hazemoon, as Mr Abu Ismail’s rowdy enthusiasts have been dubbed, may prove to be the next—and no less alarming—wave of Egypt’s future.