Egypt's Authoritarian, Redux?

photo from Wikimedia Commons On June 4, 2009, President Obama delivered a riveting speech to the Muslim world at Cairo University. In it he declared, “I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.”

While the Obama administration stumbled through the rush of the Arab uprising in 2011, and continues to dither on many regional issues, it did in fact throw its support behind the Egyptian President, Mohammed Morsi, upon his election in 2012. In fact, the situation was almost too good to be true—the United States would have an opportunity to cultivate a positive relationship with a democratically elected leader of the Arab world.

Now, let’s fast forward to 2013. Has the U.S. continued to support Morsi? Yes. And has Morsi respected legal frameworks and state institutions while remaining a sponsor of freedom and democracy? To find out, we need look no farther than recent headlines.

March 24, the popularly elected and temporary legislative Shura Council—of which Mohammad Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party holds a majority of the seats— passed in principle a new law that will heavily subject NGOs to government supervision, and limit their avenues for political participation and foreign funding. Many have since cried out against the law and have claimed that the regulatory provision will restrict civil society activity (much of which works to promote democracy) to an even greater extent than the one previously instituted under Mubarak’s heavy hand.

March 25, arrest warrants were announced for five Egyptian activists accused of inciting recent violence and championing anti-Islamist claims—a claim which is questionable at best.

March 26, the Shura Council in principle passed a new law that would severely restrict the right for popular protest in an attempt to contain a deteriorating security situation and to stifle the opposition.

March 27, an Egyptian court annulled the appointment of the current Prosecutor General by Mohammad Morsi in November 2012. The court argues that the 2012 decree, which replaced the then-serving Prosecutor, was unconstitutional. However, Morsi’s move has since been “made” legal by the new constitution rammed through by his government in December 2012. Unsurprisingly, there are reports that the current Prosecutor General, Talaat Ibrahim, will appeal the court’s decision, and that Morsi will “not heed” the court’s verdict.

And finally, on March 31, in a move that has made the most noise, Egyptian state prosecutors summoned Bassem Youssef, a famous Egyptian satirist, television host, and heart surgeon, to answer questions about recent allegations that he had insulted President Morsi and denigrated Islam on his popular Egyptian show (fashioned after the “Daily Show”), “El Bernameg.”

In light of these developments, it is hard to answer the above question in the affirmative. In fact, it is hard to believe that Mohammad Morsi was expected to usher in a new era of Egyptian politics by replacing Mubarak’s autocracy.  If the past week is any indication, it has become clear that Morsi has not taken kindly to the job. Since his election in June 2012, the former Muslim Brotherhood leader and current leader of its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, has launched a stunning campaign to consolidate power and silence opponents in the tumultuous post-Mubarak Egyptian political scene. Mired in its own paranoia that old-regime forces and antagonistic international actors coordinate the opposition movement and frequent protests, the Muslim Brotherhood has marched forward on a mission to “protect” the revolution and the Egyptian people. Along its path, it has smothered free press and expression, allegedly committed human rights abuses, and refused to seriously engage with its critics. In Morsi’s first 100 days, 4 times as many lawsuits were filed for “insulting the president” than during Mubarak’s entire 29-year reign. Meanwhile, the Egyptian economy continues to tumble, the opposition remains stunted by its own division, and the historic revolutionary passion of Tahrir has been substituted for a sense of disillusionment and apathy.  Morsi sure did replace Mubarak—one strongman for another.

Yet unlike the era of Mubarak, and despite the headlines, there still is a sense of fluidity. Protestors fill the streets, police continue to strike against their political manipulation, the army hesitantly stands aside, and the opposition remains critical of the government’s many corrupt maneuvers. Morsi’s public approval has dropped precipitously over the past few months, and the promised elections ahead offer some hope for a degree of change. But political deadlock, social unrest, and serious economic affliction all characterize the highly unstable and volatile situation. Meanwhile, the spirit of the Arab uprisings endures on the streets. Morsi’s authoritarianism might be on the rise, yet it is anything but absolute.

Despite these conditions, the United States continues to support Morsi, and is shy to criticize him. But while America has received handsome payouts for previous bets on regional autocrats, it must be careful on how it moves forward in Egypt. Not all authoritarianism is created equal. Morsi is not Mubarak. And the Egyptian revolution is far from over. It is not too late for the Obama administration to reconsider its strategy and replace its bets, or work with the current regime to reform itself and its governing practices. The Brotherhood’s grip over Egypt is not absolute, and so America’s support for it shouldn’t be either. Morsi might soon indeed find himself standing atop a house of cards, and so the U.S. must preserve its flexibility in its foreign policy. In fact, it has already written a primer for how it can proceed: that 2009 speech at Cairo University. The world might not remember exactly what Obama said nearly four years ago, but I bet the Egyptians do.