Egyptian president Morsi orates last year in Germany. (AFP photo)
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Whenever there is a regime change, there are those who carry the potential to ‘spoil’ it. This idea has long been entrenched in the minds of many leaders in the Middle East. Each new regime has viewed the remnants of their predecessor as possible spoilers.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and his ruling party, the Muslim Brotherhood, have opted to view the violence that continues to dominate the political scene in Egypt through the spoiler prism, and treat their opposition as ‘spoilers’ of the democratic process. Wasat Party leader Abul-Ela Madi’s recent insinuations that Egypt’s intelligence apparatus is engaged in destabilizing the Morsi-led government illustrate the obsession of many, particularly Islamists, with the idea that various security and administrative apparatuses have links to the old regime, and may include spoilers plotting to ruin the newborn democracy. Morsi himself voiced concern about what he described as “certain loopholes within the intelligence apparatus.”
The concept of spoilers is indeed plausible; resisting change is part of human nature. The rise of political Islam has much potential for radical change, not just on the political level but also in the social and cultural spheres; this is bound to be threatening to many. As Omar Ashour has written, it can apply to many forms of transitions, including democratic ones.
The pertinent question in the Egyptian case is, who are the spoilers? Are they the non-Islamist opposition, many of them who were arrested and oppressed by the Mubarak regime? Are they the activists, who have relentlessly fought for freedom before and after the January 2011 revolution? Or are they the civil servants within Egypt’s various governing bodies? Also, are the ‘spoilers’ deliberately attempting to foil democracy, or are they just a exercising a different approach? Thus far, Morsi and his supporters have refrained from naming who they believe to be threats, instead resorting to the very old Egyptian habit of tanbeet, or passing hints within speeches, without direct allegations. Morsi repeatedly claims credible reports of “plots” and “fingers,” yet he has never released any details of those alleged mysterious plots.
The hints about the spoilers’ identities have inspired a new game in social media. Take the bizarre tweet by the Muslim Brotherhood leader Essam El-Erian, linking Jewish Passover with devilish plots in Dubai; the hint here could be about ElBaradei’s visit, or regarding Shafiq’s residency in the Gulf state which already has strained relationships with Egypt due to alleged Muslim Brotherhood cell. Who knows?
And that is the problem. Whether deliberate spoiling exists or not, the subversive hints have launched a reckless game that has reduced the political scene in Egypt to a personality clash between the Islamists and those within the state’s traditional pillars, including security, judiciary, and military branches, political parties and the media, in addition to various activists and opposition figures. Hints ultimately breed rumors and even wild allegations, and smear campaigns have been concocted on social media against many opposition figures, including Sabbahi and ElBaradei, and even young activists like Ahmed Doma. The results of this approach are more polarization, more resentment, and more violence.
Rather than improving his mediocre approach, face the Egyptian public, and give evidence as to who are the ‘spoilers,’ Morsi has opted for a new policy of ‘soft’ coercion as the ultimate solution. The arrest of political activists like Alaa Abdel Fatah and Mahienour el-Massry, and the recent arrest and five-hour interrogation for satirist Bassem Youssef, followed by his release on bail seem to be the first step in this new approach. The adoption of soft coercion raises the alarm bells about Morsi’s leadership abilities, since he lumped all his opponents in one bag as total spoilers; the clear demarcation between Anti-Mubarak opposition and pro-Mubarak “felool” has become increasingly blurred—now they all anti-Morsi “spoilers.”
Moreover, by being unspecific, Morsi has got himself into a tricky spot; on one hand, can the recent wave of arrests stop the violence? If not, what else can Morsi do? Arrest more activists and politicians? What about the other alleged spoilers within the security apparatus or even the military? Can Morsi arrest them too? If the answer to the above questions is ‘no,’ then the rumor that he is not fully in control of the state is bound to be whispered again. There is already a growing fear among many Egyptians of a dangerous asynchronization of the main pillars of the state due to the current zero-sum power-struggles between pro-Morsi and anti-Morsi members within them.
On the other hand, Morsi has raised the stakes among his supporters; failure to meet the Islamists’ growing demands to ‘purge’ the entire system could lead to resentment or even revolt among the junior Brotherhood cadres, who believe their opponents to be traitors. This could easily translate into more violence in the streets.
In their quest for power, the Muslim Brotherhood has committed two fatal strategic errors: they rushed to lead, and then they failed to lead. The outcome was neither refurbishment of the old system nor the erection of a new one that provides meaningful change. Egypt does not have a problem with spoilers, but groups with important differences in narratives and outlooks. These groups need wise leadership with impeccable navigation skills that can heal the wounds of the revolution. Coercion will never provide Morsi and the Brotherhood with the control they aspire to achieve; instead, it will ultimately lead to the collapse of the democracy that they persistently claim to defend.