During a recent series of talks I gave in the United States on the Arab Spring, I was often criticized for arguing that the newly elected governments in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen should be given a chance before being subjected to a definite judgement.
In that context, Egypt, because of its political weight, was of special importance. After a while, I found myself in the surrealistic position of having to defend Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi against people posing questions from the audience.
Is Mursi not a fascist, one questioner wanted to know? And does the Egyptian president not intend to drive the Copts out of Egypt and then invade Israel, another demanded? A third questioner quoted blood-chilling statements supposedly uttered by Mursi in the past.
As you could see, this kind of assessment of the performance of political leaders is not confined to the so-called Arab world. The United States, which boasts of being the world’s second largest democracy, after India, is not immune to such misconceptions.
The formula is simple.
One judges a political leader by a mixture of what he is supposed to have said and done in the past and what he supposedly intends to do in the future.
Let us take President Barack Obama: he is supposed to have been a Communist in his youth, while also being a secret Muslim. He also intends to use his stay the White House to transform the United States into a “socialist” republic.
What is ignored in such an analysis is what Obama is actually doing, or not doing, right now and in the real world.
Subjected to a similar treatment, people seem to be more interested in Mursi’s real or imagined past and his even more problematic deeds in the future than what he has actually done, or not done, so far.
The result is that one ends up with no serious political discussion and certainly no credible critique of the policies that are actually implemented. You say Obama is a Communist Muslim, and his supporters would answer that he is not. You say that Mursi wants to kick women out of the economy, and his supporters would insist that he does not.
That kind of Alphonse-and-Gaston dialogue leads nowhere, expect to the kind of impasse that cabaret comedians conjure.
So, how does one assess a political leader?
The first question is one of legitimacy. This could have a wide range of sources, and it assumes many different forms. In the case of Mursi, legitimacy comes from fairly free and clean elections.
Once elected, Mursi has no past. He is reborn as the elected president of Egypt. A majority of Egyptian voters, having assessed his program and his personality, his past and his present, chose him for a specific job for a specific duration, beyond which his future is also of no interest. They have a four-year contract with him, and he with them, at the end of which it will either be renewed or terminated.
Thus, Mursi must be judged by policies he offers and implements during his presidential tenure. Whether one likes him or not is beside the point. I told many American friends that they could not push free elections as a universal good but then turn around and beat their chests in lamentation when they dislike the results.
In New York, one Iranian–American lady asked how I could be ready to acknowledge Mursi’s legitimacy while denying the legitimacy of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khameneni.
I think the answer is clear. Khamenei, who calls himself “Leader of All Muslims in the World,” has not been elected by anyone and thus has no contract with the Iranian people. If he submits himself to free and fair elections and wins, I would be prepared to acknowledge and respect his legitimacy—although I would not vote for him, just as I would not vote for Mursi.
Mursi’s election has given Egypt a tremendous opportunity for building a non-dictatorial system. The Muslim Brotherhood, which nominated Mursi, abandoned its traditional opposition to elections as a form of choosing and changing governments in order to enter the race. We don’t know whether that was a tactical move or not, but it would be good for Egypt if the Brotherhood redefined itself as just another political party that could be in government sometimes and in opposition at other times.
In 1952, the Brotherhood ganged up with the military to deprive the Egyptian people of a say in running their own affairs. Such an unholy alliance seems remote at present, but is not impossible. By wrecking Mursi’s presidency, democrats would only encourage despotic trends within the Brotherhood, reviving the temptation to make a deal with anti-democratic forces in the military.
Already, some dissidents within the Brotherhood—often with links to the mullahs in Tehran—are doing all they can to sabotage Mursi’s presidency. In other words they are in objective alliance with remnants of the former regime (feloul) and other groups that claim Egyptians deserve nothing but an iron fist.
The US and other democracies have every interest in helping Egypt succeed in its first chaotic attempt at democratization.
Mursi’s natural modesty and lack of charisma may be assets in this exercise. Close to the average Egyptian, Mursi is unlikely to nurture dreams of a personality cult or the megalomania that afflicts so many Arab leaders.
While objectively assessing and criticizing his policies, Egyptian democrats should be prepared to give Mursi a chance beyond his first year in office. They should oppose him by pointing out his mistakes and, when applicable, the inadequacies of the policies he offers. More importantly, they should persuade Egyptians that better policies are available so that when the next election come around, the option they offer has a better chance of success.