If there is anything that the current situation in Egypt teaches, it is how hard it is to create a functioning liberal democracy after decades of oppression. It is, in fact, a lot harder than simply having an election. Because after the voting, it is imperative for the winners to show respect for the losers and not simply try to consolidate all power in their own hands while trying to crush the opposition.
By that standard, Mohamed Morsi is failing as Egypt’s new president. In recent weeks he has tried to claim for himself powers that are above even judicial review, and now he is trying to ram through a new constitution, which is to be voted on mere weeks after being drafted in a secretive process declared invalid by the opposition. When Egyptians opposed to this power grab have taken to the streets they have been met by thuggish Muslim Brotherhood supporters and violence has broken out.
Today, speaking from an office ringed by tanks, Morsi sounded a lot like his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak. In fact the only difference between the two appeared to be the backdrop they used for their televised addresses—red for Morsi, blue for Mubarak. Morsi was positively Mubarak-like in blaming the protests on “infiltrators” funded by unnamed third parties—it must be counted as considerable restraint on his part not to come right out and blame the perfidious Zionists. When he vowed that those guilty of violence “will not escape punishment” it sounded like a veiled threat against the opposition; certainly it is hard to imagine him jailing Muslim Brothers who have attacked secular opposition activists or Coptic Christians.
Indeed the menacing tone of his remarks did much to undermine the message of unity that was contained in his call for a dialogue with the opposition. For such talks to be fruitful, Morsi will have to acknowledge that the opposition is not motivated by a desire to undermine Egypt or bring back the old regime—but rather that the opposition is as concerned about the country’s welfare as he is. That, however, would require a monumental intellectual and moral leap that only a few heroes, such as Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel and Aung San Suu Kyi, have been able to make. Most of those who have spent long periods of time in underground organizations plotting against the state emerge bitter and ruthless and determined not to allow anyone else to oust them from power as they ousted the previous incumbent. Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong are the ultimate 20th-century examples. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq is a much lesser and less malign example: he is not a mass murderer but he has a conspiratorial, winner-take-all outlook which leads him to persecute political opponents such as the Sunni Vice President Tariq al Hashemi. Unfortunately for Egypt’s future, Morsi, alas, fits more closely into the Maliki mindset than in the Mandela-Havel-Suu Kyi mold.