Morsi’s Next Steps
Resistance to imperial rule is a time-honored Arab tradition, albeit with unanticipated consequences. During World War I, for example, the Hashemites helped to destroy the Ottoman sultanate only to find itself a proxy power under British, and later American hegemony. Anwar Sadat kicked out his Soviet advisers and, with the encouragement of his new masters in Washington, went to Jerusalem and was killed for it.
This week, Egypt’s new president purged a corrupt and authoritarian military leadership – an imperial presence from within, rather than from without – that had hijacked last year’s revolt against former dictator Hosni Mubarak. Confounding those who dismissed him as a pliant figurehead for larger players, Mohammed Morsi staged a surprise coup against the generals who refused to concede to his authority. He did it in the face of his first genuine crisis – the killing by marauding jihadis of 16 Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula – and, in a nice Machiavellian touch, with the help of younger officers frustrated with the sclerotic rule of the aging brass-hats.
A leader of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi owed his electoral success almost exclusively to the organizing power of that movement. Now, he may claim a formidable new power base in the generation of young officers who are indebted to him and his daring for their enhanced influence. He has displayed street smarts and a knack for political hardball. But does he have the strategic vision to go with it?
Elected with the tiniest of margins – the Brotherhood thoroughly discredited itself with a string of broken campaign promises, most prominently a vow that its members would not contest the presidency – Morsi began his administration with little in the way of political currency. With his “Night of the Long Knives” moment, however, deployed as it was against a general staff that was reviled at least as much by civilians as it was by the military’s junior ranks, he now has something resembling a mandate and he should leverage it.
Having declared that the generals have returned to the barracks for good, Morsi should assure local and foreign businessmen that his civilian-led government will guarantee security for new investment. He should unveil a combination of positive and coercive incentives to encourage banks to lend money to small-and-mid sized business, the backbone of the Egyptian economy. He should work with international institutions like The World Bank for a comprehensive plan to expand and modernize the country’s infrastructure, particularly its rail grid. He should work with educators to map out a reform plan for Egypt’s broken education system, with a robust role for vocational schools at its heart. He should respectfully show the United States Agency for International Development, the U.S. foreign assistance arm that over the last forty years has developed its own imperial presence in Egypt, the door.
No doubt the military will continue to enjoy its privileged stake in the Egyptian economy. That franchise should be liquidated as part of a gradual and transparent privatization plan just as the generals were forced to relinquish their commercial empires in places like China, Indonesia and Turkey. It will be a long process and Morsi, the bland engineer and former university lecturer, is now in a position to get it started.