By David D. Kirkpatrick
Dec 15, 2012
Tanks and barbed wire had surrounded Egypt’s presidential palace and crowds of protesters were swarming around last week when President Obama placed a call to President Mohamed Morsi.
Mr. Morsi and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood stood accused of a sudden turn toward authoritarianism, as they fulminated about conspiracies, steamrollered over opponents, and sent their supporters into a confrontation with protesters the night before that call; the clash left seven people dead. But Mr. Obama did not reprimand Mr. Morsi, advisers to both leaders said.
Instead, a senior Obama administration official said, the American president sought to build on a growing rapport with his Egyptian counterpart, arguing to Mr. Morsi that it was in his own interest to offer his opposition compromises, in order to build trust in his government.
“These last two weeks have been concerning, of course, but we are still waiting to see,” said another senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid aggravating relations with Egypt. “One thing we can say for Morsi is he was elected, so he has some legitimacy.” He noted that Mr. Morsi was elected with 51 percent of the vote.
As Egyptians vote Saturday on the draft constitution, the results may also render a verdict on Mr. Morsi’s ability to stabilize the country and the Obama administration’s bet that it can build a workable partnership with a government guided by the Brotherhood — a group the United States shunned for decades as a threat to Western values and interests.
White House officials say that as Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mr. Morsi has a unique chance to build a credible democratic process with broad participation, which is the surest source of stability.
But critics of the Brotherhood have cited Mr. Morsi’s strong-arm push for the Islamist-backed charter as vindication of their argument that Islamist politics are fundamentally incompatible with tolerance, pluralism and the open debate essential to democracy. They say that his turn to authoritarianism has discredited the Obama administration’s two-year courtship of Egypt’s new Islamist leaders.
Some say they suspect the White House may envision the trade-off it offered to the ousted president, Hosni Mubarak: turning a blind eye to heavy-handed tactics so long as he continues to uphold the stability of American-backed regional order.
And by muting its criticism, the Obama administration shares some of the blame, said Michael Hanna, a researcher at the Century Foundation in New York and an Egyptian-American in Cairo for the vote. “Silence is acquiescence,” he said, adding about Mr. Morsi: “At some point if you are so heedless of the common good that you are ready to take the country to the brink and overlook bodies in the street, that is just not O.K.”
Mr. Obama’s advisers, though, say that in Egypt the dual goals of stability and democracy are aligned, because in the math of the revolution Egyptians will no longer accept the old autocracy.
As for Mr. Morsi, administration officials and other outside analysts argue that so far his missteps appear to be matters of tactics, not ideology, with only an indirect connection to his Islamist politics. “The problem with Morsi isn’t whether he is Islamist or not, it is whether he is authoritarian,” said a Western diplomat in Cairo, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic protocol.
What is more, the leading opposition alternatives appeared no less authoritarian: Ahmed Shafik, who lost the presidential runoff, was a former Mubarak prime minister campaigning as a new strongman, and Hamdeen Sabahi, who narrowly missed the runoff, is a Nasserite who has talked of intervention by the military to unseat Mr. Morsi despite his election as president.
“The problem with ‘I told you so’ is the assumption that if things had turned out differently the outcome would be better, and I don’t see that,” the diplomat said, noting that the opposition to the draft constitution had hardly shown more respect than Mr. Morsi has for the norms of democracy or the rule of law. “There are no black hats and white hats here, there are no heroes and villains. Both sides are using underhanded tactics and both sides are using violence.”
Critics of the draft constitution say it does not adequately protect freedom of expression or women’s equality. Under a more conservative Islamist government, certain provisions could give new power to Muslim religious authorities to exert over law and society. The draft document retains a longstanding provision declaring the principles of Islamic law to be the main source of legislation. A new clause broadly defines those principles in accord with Sunni Muslim traditions. Critics say that could someday be used to the disadvantage of non-Muslim lawmakers or jurists.
But White House officials say that although the charter may be vague, it does not impose a theocracy. “The question will be, how does the next Parliament implement what is in the constitution, and what is their vision for Egypt?” said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
Critics fault some of Mr. Morsi’s Islamist allies for rallying his supporters with calls to defend Islamic law. Critics say invoking religion unfairly demonizes their opponents, most of whom are also observant Muslims, and widens the polarization that has paralyzed Egyptian politics. But Mr. Morsi has not joined their calls.
Other scholars of the Brotherhood say Mr. Morsi’s recent strong-arm tactics may have more to do with the history of the Islamist political movement. He grew up in the Brotherhood when it was an outlawed secret society under the Mubarak police state, concerned most of all with survival and prone to see persecution around every corner.
White House officials defended Mr. Morsi, arguing that he was learning from his mistakes. Afraid that the courts might dissolve the constitutional assembly or even remove his powers, Mr. Morsi badly overreached with a decree putting himself above the courts until ratification of a new charter.
But he has steadily retreated in the face of pressure from the street. And after the deadly mistake of turning to their Islamist supporters for protection of the palace, the Brotherhood has carefully kept all its rallies far from its opponents to avoid any further violence.
Looking past the referendum, White House advisers say they are urging Mr. Morsi to spend any political capital he gains on reaching out to his opponents, to build the legitimacy for his government and the political process. Mr. Morsi’s advisers say a “national dialogue” committee he convened is still working on such proposals.
Under current Egyptian law, the president is allowed to fill about a third of the seats in the upper house of Parliament, known as the Shura Council, and one idea is that he could appoint political opponents, evening out the balance. The chamber is the sole legislature until parliamentary elections, handling delicate matters like the election laws.
“Our point to him is going to be, as the democratically elected president of Egypt who has just passed a constitution, the onus is going to be on you to try to heal this divide,” the White House official said. “And we will look for concrete measures of that, like a willingness to appoint people to the Shura Council.”
“And we are saying the same thing to the opposition,” he added. “They have got to be willing to participate.”