BRET STEPHENS:MOHAMMED MORSI AS MASTER
You have to admire Mohammed Morsi’s sense of timing. Or, rather, his confident indifference to it.
Early last week, the Egyptian president and Muslim Brother brokered a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas with the assistance of the Obama administration. On Wednesday, a story in the New York Times gave the blow-by-blow account of the negotiations from Mr. Obama’s angle.
“Mr. Obama told aides he was impressed with the Egyptian leader’s pragmatic confidence,” the Times reported. “He sensed an engineer’s precision with surprisingly little ideology. Most important, Mr. Obama told aides that he considered Mr. Morsi a straight shooter who delivered on what he promised and did not promise what he could not deliver.”
A day after this era of good feelings had begun, Mr. Morsi awarded himself dictatorial powers. The worst that White House spokesman Jay Carney would say is that the administration is “concerned.”
Mr. Morsi’s decision ostensibly comes in response to his dissatisfaction with Egyptian judges, many of them holdovers from Hosni Mubarak’s regime, who have handed down too many acquittals or soft sentences in trials of ex-regime figures. Worse, those same judges may dissolve the Islamist-dominated assembly that is drafting a new constitution, much as they dissolved the Islamist-dominated parliament in June, shortly before Mr. Morsi’s election.
Mr. Morsi’s solution was to issue a decree giving him the right to supersede any judicial rulings of which he disapproves. He promises to revoke the decree once a new constitution is approved and Egypt’s political transition is complete. Egyptians are supposed to take it on trust, as is the rest of the world. It’s a bad bet.
From the start of Egypt’s revolution in January 2011, observers have consistently underestimated the strength and ambition of the Muslim Brotherhood.
First, the story was that the Brotherhood had been late to the party in Tahrir Square and therefore wouldn’t reap the political spoils. In fact, it reaped nearly all of the spoils.
Next, that the Brotherhood would be faithful to its declared promise not to contest the presidential election. It broke the promise without paying a penny of a political price.
Later, that even after its victories at the polls the Brotherhood would respect and remain subservient to the country’s true (and secular) masters in the military. Mr. Morsi sacked Egypt’s top military leaders within two months of coming to office, replacing them with men who owed their loyalty to him.
Then, that the Brotherhood would defend the usual rules of diplomacy, such as protecting foreign embassies. It took a furious phone call from Mr. Obama to move Mr. Morsi to protect the U.S. Embassy from a mob that came close to sacking it.
Finally, that the country’s dependence on foreign aid and tourism will curb the government’s appetite for naked power grabs. But Mr. Morsi’s power grab came just two days after Egypt had initialed, though not finalized, a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. Mr. Morsi already won $1 billion in debt forgiveness from Washington intended to bolster Egypt’s “transition to democracy.”
It is true that Mr. Morsi adopted a less strident position toward Israel during this month’s brawl in Gaza than some expected. There were also reports Monday afternoon that Mr. Morsi had somewhat amended his judicial decree, though not when it comes to the constitutional assembly. If true, it is evidence of Mr. Morsi’s canniness and tactical flexibility. Moderation is another matter.
Even now, Western analysts continue to misread Mr. Morsi, imagining that his primary political challenge is to improve the Egyptian standard of living. Not so. His real challenge is to consolidate the power of the Brotherhood.
So far, he’s passed every test. His domestic opponents know they cannot match the Brotherhood’s strength in the streets. The army lacks the appetite, and probably the means, for an Algerian-style coup and bloody civil war. The West, including Israel, is trying to make the best of things and will go further to accommodate Egypt’s new pharaoh than he will go to accommodate them. Everywhere Mr. Morsi looks, he is the master.
It may take some time for the West fully to appreciate the ugliness of Egypt’s new regime. For now, it is enough to appreciate its potency and intelligence. Mr. Obama was right to praise Mr. Morsi’s “engineer’s precision.” He would be a fool to imagine that such precision can be divorced from an ideology for which Mr. Morsi once went to prison, and which now rests in his hands to impose.
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