Egypt’s ongoing revolution reached a fever pitch in November, after President Mohamed Morsi, high on international praise for helping negotiate the Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire, appointed himself unlimited power, declared himself immune to judicial oversight, and demanded the immediate passing of a long-awaited and long-postponed constitution. On December 5th, he called his soldiers, tanks, and supporters to guard the presidential palace in Cairo. Street clashes between secularists and Islamists, Coptic Christians and Muslim Brothers, and pro-Mubaraks and pro-Morsis, killed ten and injured 450; inside the palace, Morsi pushed through on drafting a vague and rough constitution with his Islamist-dominated assembly. Secular politician and Nobel Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei tweeted that Morsi had “declared himself Egypt’s new pharaoh.” Millions of Egyptians involved in the revolution – whose two-year anniversary is just around the corner – prayed to Allah that their efforts had not been in vain. With hundreds of Palestinians and tens of thousands of Syrians dead, the threat of Egypt mirroring the 1979 Iranian revolution almost dashed all hopes of an Arab Spring.
But the violence ebbed, and Egyptians lined up to vote for or against the proposed constitution. By the millions. But Christians, secularists, and even conservative Muslims boycotted the election for a number of reasons: some purely political, to delegitimize a constitution that was barely legitimate to begin with; but also religious, despite the constitution’s Sharia law interpretability. Indeed, it was just that. Some devout Muslims were taken aback by how fervently their imams promoted the constitution as a good thing for Islam, less so than for Egypt. The constitution passed with 64% of the vote, but a mere 33% electoral participation.
Illegitimate? Certainly. But it’s legal code, and since it was the first concrete legal code Egyptians had seen in, well, forever, then they were willing to take it. The new Egyptian constitution leaves may questions of human rights and dignities ambivalent, but then again, so did our Constitution. That’s why we wrote a Bill of Rights. Now that they’ve actually got the document, whether they like it or not, the revolutionary focus turns from the constitutional writers to the interpreters and enactors.
The entire Muslim Brotherhood is standing on thin ice, and Morsi’s looking pretty heavy these days. Its street reputation has turned from kind and charitable to violent and totalitarian. Many disillusioned Brothers have vowed to never vote for an Islamist again. Millions of unemployed Egyptians mourn the tanked economy, in issue which the Morsi administration has put on the back-burner since his election in June. Now, Morsi is more frozen than ever, trying to appear strong and assertive to a populous that wouldn’t mind frying up his balls with some cous-cous, balancing on a constitution that looks more like a house of cards. His country needs new, brave, sweeping action, but Morsi’s in no position – and no mindset – to provide that.
Ideally, if things don’t fall apart by then, Morsi will get voted out of office, and a more legitimate, compromising, and democratic leader will assume the presidency. But to find the right candidate, to find out exactly how they want their president to lead, demands a political dialogue that was squashed in Egypt for too long. Morsi doesn’t have the power to curb the political debate that the Arab Spring (and Facebook) sparked. Once this conversation has started between Egyptians, they can begin discovering where they stand on the many new issues, policies, and parties born from the dust of their former government, about which the sole debate was “Mubarak vs. No Mubarak.”
Egypt’s first presidential election, in which Morsi beat Mubarak’s former prime minister, did little to deviate from this debate. But perhaps the new constitution, good or bad, will provide the framework for constructive civil conversation, as ours does in this country. People must discuss, understand, and pick a stance on these issues,
Middle Eastern culture is so vastly different from ours, that we are apt to cite the absence of Arab democracies as evidence that Arabs simply aren’t built for democracy. But the only reason Americans are built for democracy is that they can have debates where they say things like that, and I have free websites where I can write things like this. Well, now many Egyptians have the websites too, and a leveler playing field where they can listen to each other’s ideas. Maybe the Egyptians of fifty, thirty, even ten years ago weren’t built for democracy. But not today’s Egyptians; they’re ready.
Just look at Bassem Youssef. An Egyptian working as a heart surgeon in the US was inspired by Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, and he was frustrated that Egypt didn’t have a similar comedic gadfly, someone who could mock everyone objectively and present rational opinions. Now, he makes more money from his online news program Al Bernameg than he ever did in medicine, and his cutting sarcasm and sexual innuendo leave targets with no better retaliation than jokes about his personal hygiene. A pious Muslim, he criticizes Islamic fundamentalists and government officials for bending Islam to their own will and meaning. He’s opening up an essential while entertaining dialogue in Egyptian media, and while the master-debaters from the Muslim Brotherhood and Coptic Church call him a sexual deviant and “varmint,” Egyptians are drinking up every minute.
A return to silence is the only thing that could stifle the Arab Spring, but the 21st century is already reshaping the nature of revolutions: no matter what you do, you can never really get people to shut up. And Morsi is scared.
Here’s Bassem Youssef on his show, Al Bernameg, with a flattering photo of Morsi. Credit: Al Jazeera.