Why Egypt Needs Space from Morsi

As Egypt’s democratically elected president, one would hope that Mohamed Morsi would have a finger on the pulse of the Egyptian people. Unfortunately, he’s looking more and more out of touch. An online campaign has begun, with typical good Egyptian humour, to nominate Morsi to win a trip to space – a place where Egyptians hope he might gain some perspective on his role in Egypt’s earthly troubles.

The president has announced that the parliamentary elections originally slated for February 23 will now commence on April 22 and likely won’t be competed until June 16. Due to a shortage of election monitors, Egyptians will head to the polls in four stages. Holding elections over a number of months will improve transparency, but supervisors will still have their hands full. Egypt’s political and economic climate as of late can only be described as chaotic.

The factors behind the current impasse have grown depressingly familiar: a near-bankrupt economy; worsening political gridlock; a deeply frustrated public that is venting its anger at the ineffectiveness of the current government with increasing frequency and violence; and restless security institutions whose actions have done little to mitigate the political situation, and even less to dispel fears of what may come if the civilian-run order falls apart. President Morsi is struggling to find a way out of this mess – the delayed elections are just one indicator among many.

To be fair, Morsi inherited an economic, political, and social system in complete disarray after decades of neglect and corruption under Mubarak. After the revolution, Egyptians had high, arguably unrealistic expectations that a democratically elected government would clean up the mess – piling garbage would be removed from the sewers, the country’s infamous traffic problems would be solved, corrupt and inefficient judges would be replaced by honest, fair-minded ones, and heavy-handed police brutality would be reined in.

But when it came to designing and implementing the policies necessary to fix these problems, the democratically elected government found itself stuck with the financially and morally bankrupt institutions of the old regime. Institutional reform would have to precede many of the everyday changes demanded by Egyptians.

Morsi acknowledged that reforming the system and its core institutions – which despite their decaying state, remain key sources of national pride – was necessary, and that it would be challenging. But, as the months have passed, he has not risen to occasion. Instead, he has prioritized strengthening his own authority, supposedly to better safeguard the reform process. Whether or not this proves to have been a legitimate path to take, it has become clear that Egypt’s infrastructure, education, food and agriculture, housing, police, security, and legal systems (to name only a few) need to be overhauled completely, not merely reformed.

Unfortunately, Morsi has done much to entrench the worst of the problems that besieged the country post-Mubarak. Months of delay and political manoeuvring have led to widespread public disillusionment with the government. And not just in Egypt – in the U.S. Congress, skeptical voices are growing louder in debates over the provision of aid. Global cynicism is reflected in the dramatic decline of the country’s tourism-related income over the last two years, an industry on which a quarter of the Egyptian economy depends.

Morsi’s personal style, or lack thereof, has encouraged perceptions that Egypt is a black comedy stuck on rewind. His performances have become painfully reminiscent of Arab leaders past. When he takes the megaphone and yells at his people, telling them what they are doing wrong without suggesting how to put things right, it is boring at best. More disturbingly, he now seems content to rely on the discourse of the past – the blaming of an unknown and ominous enemy for the country’s ills – to legitimize his policies, instead of offering a vision for the future.

For many diehard revolutionaries, the solution to this uninspiring situation is “Down with the regime!” This slogan has a good track record so far – Egyptians brought down a 30-year-old autocracy in 18 days – but perpetual protests will not solve the country’s problems. Going to the polls should be the most effective way for Egyptians to bring about change, but whether or not this holds true will depend on who chooses to participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Nobel laureate Mohammed El-Baradei of the National Salvation Front has called for a public boycott of the elections, and other opposition figures are now debating the option. This is the wrong path to take – a boycott would not help Egypt move forward. One can see why the NSF might prefer to derail the elections rather than face Morsi squarely. The opposition movement is fragmented, fragile, and has shown little evidence of new ideas. Its raison d’etre appears to be its leaders’ dislike of Morsi, with some going as far as to claim that Morsi has no political legitimacy. But such claims will do little to further the opposition’s goals if they are not accompanied by efforts to build up the movement’s own governance credentials.

The opposition needs to buckle down and recognize a real opportunity when it sees one. It needs to put forward future-minded candidates who will declare their determination to fix Egypt’s problems with a single voice strong enough to drown out the uninspiring messages coming from Morsi’s megaphone. If the opposition works hard to find alternative ideas that can win votes at the polls, they will do far more good for Egypt than if they harangue voters from the sidelines. The parliamentary elections could be a turning point, but not if the opposition sits back, complains, and boycotts.

Morsi is now being lambasted for having no charisma and no vision – a fairly dramatic shift from the early days of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power. To be fair, he had only a small window to repair the damage wrought by Mubarak, but he failed to use it effectively. With each passing day, the public is becoming less prepared to let another window go by.

The president now has a growing number of critics who don’t want to see his party dominate the next parliament. In fact, they want him to leave, to a galaxy far, far away. A boycott will hardly make this more likely.