Which version of President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt should one believe in? A week ago, he was being praised to the skies by the US, Europeans and (less to his taste) the Israelis for his part in brokering a truce in Gaza. Now he is being roundly condemned as a tyrant, taking upon himself powers that even his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, did not aspire to.
Both images are true and both are false. Morsi “the peacemaker” got involved in the Gaza crisis because he had to. Given Egypt’s border with Gaza and the Muslim Brotherhood’s ties with Hamas, there was no other choice. He proved effective because he was able to work with the grain of a Hamas with mounting casualties and an Israel under mounting pressure from the US, who both saw the advantage of a truce.
Morsi “the tyrant” moved the day after to take unprecedented powers on himself again because he felt he needed to. His relations with the opposition parties in the assembly charged with producing a new constitution had broken down. The Constitutional Court, which had already dissolved the lower house of parliament, was threatening to do the same with both the constitutional assembly and the upper house of parliament. He is in trouble because this time there is no mutual interest in a truce.
If Morsi is really bent on untrammelled power, his actions would seem to reflect weakness rather than strength. In the immediate aftermath of his election as President at the end of last June, he acted rapidly to clip the power of the generals. He overturned the decision of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to dissolve the lower house and he replaced their top leadership. But then, when the Constitutional Court ruled that the recently elected People’s Assembly had to be dissolved, he suddenly retreated and tamely let it happen.
Since then, he has chosen to avoid confrontation with his opponents and instead to ignore them. The opposition parties in the Constitutional Assembly have boycotted the proceedings, saying he never listens. He has forged ahead with discussion on a new constitution only to backtrack awkwardly when his presidential decree produced riots in the street and a strike in the courts.
He met the judges earlier this week promising that his new powers would only be temporary and restricted to “sovereign” issues, but failed to define the concept. He promised the members of the Constitutional Assembly several more months to debate his party’s proposals and possibly amend them, only to press ahead with publication this week in order to pre-empt a court decision to disband the whole assembly. Now he has chosen to go on television to address the nation in order to gather support for an action which he claims is essential, but only until a new constitution is introduced and new parliamentary elections are held next year.
These are not the actions of a man bent on total power, but a relatively inexperienced politician coping with the contradictory pressures put upon him. Democracy is all very well, but how do you cope when the judges belong to the old regime, the army protects its privileged position, society is deeply divided, the Christian Coptic minority are up in arms, the more extreme Salafists are snapping at your heels and a constitution has still to be written? No wonder Morsi looks enviously across the border to Tunisia, where an Islamist government has managed to govern relatively free of riot or dissolution.
Morsi can certainly be blamed for not making more of a concerted effort to pull these competing forces together. But you can’t fault him for trying to break out of the corner he’s in.
Neither Spain nor the EU is likely to split
To read and watch the UK coverage of the Catalan election, you would have thought that Catalonia was about to declare independence the following day. The region was hurting. The people were angry. A split from Madrid was inevitable. It was the same with the Dutch and Greek elections earlier this autumn. Nationalism was on the rise. A break from the EU was certain.
In fact, the Catalans didn’t support their president in his snap election on the issue of independence any more than the Dutch or Greeks voted for radical change. That doesn’t mean the Catalans like their present position in Spain, or that the Dutch or Greeks have fallen in love with their European membership. The majority of seats in the Catalan assembly are still held by parties in favour of separation, just as they were before. EU leaders have failed, as Prime Minister Rajoy in Spain has failed, to convince voters that they have a vision for the future or any plans to achieve it.
But let’s give the public their due. These are hard times. People want security and growth – not wild political departures – if only their politicians could rally them with a hope for the future.