"Mistakes were made," says Egyptian President Morsi -- but at the moment his regime appears to be having its own way
"There have been mistakes here and there, and I bear responsibility."
-- Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, in a speech Wednesday
"Critics have always made this point -- that the worst thing that could happen to the Brotherhood might be a rise to power, because then their weaknesses would be exposed. But this is small consolation in Cairo. The world is full of bad regimes that survive just because they hurt others more than they hurt themselves."
-- Peter Hessler, in a December 24 New Yorker
"Comment" piece, "Brothers' Keepers"
"Comment" piece, "Brothers' Keepers"
Say, did you hear about Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi owning up to "mistakes here and there" -- for which he even said he bears responsibility! -- in the process of drafting and ratifying the new constitution he worked so hard to ram through the electorate?
On Wednesday, welcoming the bitterly contested election result with an unfamiliar attitude of humility, the Muslim Brotherhood's man at the top in Cairo "took responsibility for 'mistakes' during the run-up to ratification of the new Constitution and urged Egyptians to appreciate the fierce disagreements about it as a 'healthy phenomenon' of their new democracy,' " according to the NYT's David D. Kirkpatrick.
Appealing for unity after the bitter debate over the charter, which was finalized by his Islamist allies over the objections of opposition parties and the Coptic Christian Church, Mr. Morsi pledged in a televised address to respect the one-third of voters who cast ballots against it. "This is their right, because Egypt of the revolution -- Egypt's people and its elected president -- can never feel annoyed by the active patriotic opposition," he said, bobbing his head between the camera and the lectern as he read from a prepared text. "We don't want to go back to the era of the one opinion and fabricated fake majorities."Oh, so mistakes were made, eh?
But Mr. Morsi offered no concrete concessions, and he did not acknowledge any specific errors, saying only, "There have been mistakes here and there, and I bear responsibility." His most tangible outreach to the opposition was an invitation to join a so-called national dialogue that has already begun under his auspices. Hussein Abdel Ghani, a spokesman for the main opposition bloc, dismissed it as "a dialogue with himself" based on "political bribes."
Reporter Kirkpatrick acknowledges that this wasn't exactly the most forthcoming of ownings-up. Still, he writes, "Mr. Morsi's attempt at reconciliation, however vague or superficial, represented another notable step in Egypt’s political transition."
Here was a recently elected politician seeking to move from the brutally partisan campaign back to the political middle. The speech echoed many American inaugural addresses.Hmm, isn't the story here perhaps that even the remote precedent of Nasser's mea culpa was bogus?
It was a stark contrast to Mr. Morsi's previous speech, given just 20 days ago, when he sounded far more like his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak. Then, Mr. Morsi attributed a night of deadly violence between his Islamist supporters and their opponents to a conspiracy of foreign agents, old-regime insiders and his political rivals.
"As we all welcome difference in opinion, we all reject violence and breaking the law," Mr. Morsi said Wednesday, without blaming either side this time.
In Egypt, where previous presidents more often jailed political opponents, even Mr. Morsi’s limited mea culpa appeared to be the first of its kind in decades. The last presidential apology was President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s speech offering his short-lived resignation after the humiliation of losing the 1967 war with Israel, said Khaled Fahmy, a liberal historian at the American University in Cairo. "It is the only thing comparable in its clarity," Mr. Fahmy said. (Nasser’'s theatrical resignation was rejected in a staged plebiscite.) . . .
"With the results confirmed," writes Kirkpatrick, "the new order began to take shape."
The Islamist-dominated upper house of Parliament met on Wednesday for the first time under provisions of the Constitution that empower it to act as the legislature until the election of a new lower house. The upper house had been almost powerless under the former Constitution, but a court order disbanded the more authoritative lower house last spring while Egypt was still under military rule. . . .You'll recall that it was in anticipation of uppitiness on the part of the court that President Morsi issued "a presidential edict that gave him unchecked authority and polarized an already divided nation while raising a specter, the president's critics charged, of a return to autocracy," as Kirkpatrick and Kareem Fahim reported on November 23.
The court’s response to the Constitution had been a matter of some suspense. Mr. Morsi and his Islamist allies had feared that the court would strike down the assembly that was created to draw up the charter, just as it had dissolved the lower house of Parliament, or would seek to review the Constitution.
Kirkpatrick notes that just this week the U.S. State Dept., after weeks of "even-handedness," cautiously pointed a finger at the president. Spokesman Patrick Ventrell said:
Democracy requires much more than simple majority rule. It requires protecting the rights and building the institutions that make democracy meaningful and durable. . . . President Morsi, as the democratically elected leader of Egypt, has a special responsibility to move forward in a way that recognizes the urgent need to bridge divisions, build trust and broaden support for the political process."Whether President Morsi has any intention of doing any such thing remains open to question, despite his words Wednesday, when he declared --
that Egypt was "moving steadfastly toward democracy and pluralism." Under the new Constitution, he said, "everyone is equal without any discrimination."Nevertheless, as Peter Hessler wrote recently in a New Yorker "Comment" piece, "Brothers' Keepers," the history of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood (dating back to 1928), even allowing for the large underground portion of that history, owing to decades of government suppression, isn't rich with examples of either flexibility or competence in policymaking or governance. Already there is cause for alarm in the government's response to the protests that followed President Morsi's assumption of those new superpowers: "the first clearly documented case of political violence in more than fifty years of Muslim Brotherhood activity in Egypt."
"No matter what were the hardships of the past period, I see it as the pain of birthing the new Egypt," Mr. Morsi said. "It is truly the dawn of the new Egypt, which has risen and is now shining."
[T]he Brotherhood has failed to evolve in the wake of the revolution. Traditionally, the organization's strengths have been local religious training and charity work, which have made it effective at mobilizing grassroots support for elections. But for decades it was banned from full participation in Egypt's government, so it has never been tested in the more subtle and complicated aspects of national politics. The leadership is dominated by people from technical fields: of the eighteen members of the Brotherhood’'s Guidance Bureau, fifteen are doctors, engineers, or scientists. Their careers may not have taught them the arts of negotiation and compromise, and Morsi, an engineer by training, has shown no real flexibility in response to the unfolding crisis. Eight of his advisers and aides have resigned in the past three weeks. From the outside, it's hard to distinguish between calculation and incompetence. On Sunday evening, the government suddenly announced major tax increases for a wide variety of goods, including gasoline, electricity, cooking oil, cigarettes, and alcohol -- hardly a savvy move in a country with a ravaged economy and an ongoing political crisis. Later that night, after the decree had inspired a mad rush on Cairo liquor stores, Morsi cancelled it with a message posted on his Facebook page at 2:13 a.m.Nor does there appear to be any effective check on the government's power. "The military seems to be aligned with Morsi, at least for the moment," Hessler writes, "and the country lacks a strong and coherent political alternative to the Brotherhood." "Nevertheless," he writes, "there are some reasons for optimism."
The public response has been impressive, with tens of thousands of peaceful protesters surrounding the palace on many nights. These crowds are largely middle class, but they comprise people from all walks of life, including many who identify themselves as former supporters of Morsi. There are more women than usual. And expectations have changed since the beginning of the revolution. For almost two years, the media have operated with a freedom that never existed under Mubarak, and Egypt has held essentially fair elections for both parliament and the Presidency. Such progress remains fragile, but at least certain demands are being established.It remains to be seen how the Brotherhood and President Morsi will respond. Hessler has some intriguing comments from Cairo University constitutional-law professor Gaber Gad Nassar, "one of the most prominent members who quit the constituent assembly," who "could be seen as either deeply pessimistic or perversely optimistic, depending on the tone of your inshallah."
The Brotherhood, says Nassar, has "a huge ability to withstand negotiations that never reach anything. . . . They are extremely keen to take over power and use it. However, the biggest problem they face is the lack of talent qualified to do that."
"Critics have always made this point," writes Hessler --
that the worst thing that could happen to the Brotherhood might be a rise to power, because then their weaknesses would be exposed. But this is small consolation in Cairo. The world is full of bad regimes that survive just because they hurt others more than they hurt themselves.