Monday, 3 December 2012

Egypt's Morsi: Forget Planet of the Apes

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi has been in the international news nearly every day for the past week or two. First it was the positive press coverage of his cooperative role in defusing the breakout of Israeli/Hamas hostilities in Gaza. President Obama himself took calls from Morsi at 2 a.m.! What a power trip for an obscure engineer, a Muslim Brotherhood party bureaucrat who was catapulted into the limelight to pinch hit for his party’s original candidate when the latter was disqualified from the presidential elections. At the time of his election, I wrote that Egypt had a history of obscure ‘second men’ who come to power accidentally and then entrench themselves in power for surprisingly long periods. Sadat was Nasser’s yes-man vice-president till he became his own man and turned Egypt around 180 degrees from East to West; Mubarak became president unexpectedly when Sadat was assassinated, and went on to rule for thirty years.
True to historical form, the mild-mannered Morsi showed his teeth soon after taking power. He managed to outmaneuver the Generals and force the resignation of the Supreme Military Council that had been running the country and pulling the strings. Today, though, the same liberals who had applauded Morsi’s ‘coup’ against the military last summer are now flooding the streets in outrage against his move to arrogate to himself powers even Mubarak did not claim. Yet Morsi does not seem to have forfeited support from the United States. What is going on?
As Sadat did before him, Morsi is now check-mating one ‘center of power’ of the old regime after another as they challenge his newfound authority. After having successfully foiled the Military, he is turning his guns against the Judiciary, claiming that the Mubarak-appointed Supreme Court that dissolved the Islamist-dominated but democratically-elected Parliament last summer was now about to dissolve the Islamist-packed Constitutional Council charged with drafting a new charter for the nation. In a breath-taking power grab, Morsi put himself and the Constitutional Council above the reach of the highest court in Egypt, in effect above the reach of the law, while he attempts to railroad through a half-baked constitution, even after a quarter of the Council’s members, namely liberals, women, and Copts, resigned.
In a lengthy interview in the latest issue of Time Magazine with his face on the cover, Morsi tries to explain his actions as ‘pushing Egypt through a bottleneck’ of crisis, in other words, till the Constitution is ratified by referendum, after which he would retract the absolute powers he has seized by decree. No one in Egypt, however, forgets that Mubarak ruled for thirty years under cover of ‘emergency laws’ announced right after Sadat’s assassination.
Much commented on in the U.S. media is a rambling reference Morsi makes in the Time interview to the Sci-Fi kitsch classic, Planet of the Apes. Morsi compares what is happening in Egypt today to the struggle between a subjugated human played by Charleston Heston and his Ape masters in a post-apocalyptic world. Regardless of the intended meaning behind the confused analogy, it is a clever piece of public relations. It is Morsi attempting to bridge the gap with the American public, to remind them that this bearded, bespectacled, card-carrying member of the Muslim Brotherhood is also a U.S. educated engineer who received his degree from the University of Southern California, lived and worked in the States, fathered a couple of U.S.-born children, and apparently watched his fair share of cult classic movies. By sharing a reference to the ‘Planet of the Apes’, he clearly hopes to score a point on relatability.      
Are the Obama administration and the U.S. media buying this? Why is criticism of Morsi’s overreach so muted? Is it that he was democratically elected, by all accounts? Or that his role in brokering the Israeli-Hamas truce has earned him residual good will? Or is there a darker scenario at play?
In Egypt, of course, conspiracy theories rule. The Sinai hypothesis, if you can call it that, has been floating around since summer, but now it is no longer being dismissed as preposterous. According to the conspiracy theory, there are secret negotiations to cede territory from the Sinai, Egyptian territory, as part of a U.S.-sponsored master-plan resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
The Egyptian press, still largely dominated by anti-Islamist Nasserists or liberals, is mute or muzzled when it comes to this particularly treacherous scenario. Several editors, journalists and television personalities have seen their careers ended abruptly in recent weeks. One television chat show host closed her final episode days ago with a lamentation over the death of democracy, holding her own funeral shroud up in her arms.
Forget the Planet of the Apes. Watch the Sinai.