Egypt’s Morsi gets poor reviews from Islamists after first year of presidency

Khaled Elfiqui/EPA - Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT — As the first year of Mohamed Morsi’s presidency draws to a close later this month, this country is bracing for what organizers promise will be massive protests by liberal and secular Egyptians who demand his ouster.

But Egypt’s first democratically elected leader also faces growing disenchantment from an unexpected quarter: the Islamists who voted for him.

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While the Muslim Brotherhood loyalist appears to retain support within the organization, Morsi’s backing among harder-line Islamists known as Salafists has weakened considerably. The president, they say, has failed in his promise to move the country toward Islamic law.

“Unfortunately, what happened was the opposite,” said Yousry Hammad, vice president of the Watan Party, one of several Salafist groups that together hold a quarter of the seats in Egypt’s legislature. “Many of the people who voted for Morsi did so with hopes and dreams that have not been fulfilled in the past year.”

The disappointment among Morsi’s fellow Islamists creates pressure from his political right and leaves him with little room to compromise with his liberal detractors. But it also points to a reality of Morsi’s first year that even many secular Egyptians acknowledge: Morsi may want to move the country in a more religiously dogmatic direction, but he has had little success in doing so.

Predictions that Morsi’s election would herald a Saudi-style state in Egypt — one in which women’s rights are vastly curtailed, alcohol is banned and criminal punishments are swift and severe — have not been borne out.

Calls by Salafist members of parliament to prohibit ballet and to dissolve women’s rights groups have inspired derision and fear among liberals. They have not inspired actual legislation, although many in Egypt worry that such puritanical initiatives are coming.

Egypt’s post-revolutionary constitution, approved by voters late last year, says that “the principles of Islamic law form the main source of legislation.” But Egypt’s previous constitution said much the same thing. In practice, Egypt remains moderate by regional standards.

That’s a source of anguish for many Islamists who rejoiced last year at the election of one of their own, after decades of relatively secular rule by autocratic Egyptian leaders.

The promise of sharia

In Alexandria, a historically cosmopolitan and tolerant port city that has become a haven for Islamist hard-liners in recent years, Salafist leaders say they have no intention of joining the anti-Morsi protests called for June 30. The president, they say, has a right to finish his four-year term, even if they are disappointed by the results so far.

Hammad, the Watan vice president, said Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood allies lured in voters last year with the politically popular promise of Islamic law, known as sharia. But since then, he said, Morsi has offered only excuses — including the turbulent political environment and the ravaged economy — for why he has been unable to act. To Hammad, those explanations don’t wash.

“Sharia is a system based on justice, freedom and equality,” Hammad said. “If you run the country through Islam, everything will be solved after that.”

In recent days, Morsi has courted Salafists with a series of moves, including his decision to cut ties with the Syrian government — an enemy of hard-line Sunni Muslims — and his appointment of a number of Salafist governors. The new governor of Luxor comes from the political arm of a group that killed dozens of tourists there in 1997. The group has since renounced violence.

The emergence of the Salafists as a political force in Egypt was one of the major surprises of last year’s elections. While Muslim Brotherhood candidates won the presidency and a plurality of the votes for parliament, the Salafists came in second in the parliamentary elections and provided crucial support in Morsi’s runoff win against a secular candidate.

The Brotherhood and the Salafists both advocate Islamist governance. But the Brotherhood casts itself as a moderate force, while the Salafists are unabashedly orthodox. They preach a literal interpretation of Islam’s holy book, the Koran, and a lifestyle patterned after that of the prophet Mohammad and his seventh-century followers.

The substantial ideological differences have led to policy spats. When Morsi’s government raised taxes on beer and wine this year in order to discourage consumption, many Salafists recoiled, wondering why authorities were not banning the beverages.

Azza al-Garf, a member of the supreme committee of the Brotherhood’s political wing, said Morsi’s Salafist critics are living “in an alternative reality.” After 30 years of ruinous and irreligious rule under President Hosni Mubarak, she said, there is a limit to how much any Egyptian leader could expect to accomplish in just one year.

“We know that to reach our goals, we have to be gradual. I tell Islamists that without meeting people’s demands on security, health care, the economy and education, we can’t build a new system,” she said. “We can’t come to a country as exhausted as Egypt is and just declare sharia.”

Pressing for patience

Such arguments resonate with Salafists — to a point — and account for why Morsi has not lost their support entirely.

“After four years, he’ll have achieved a lot,” said Mohammed Suleiman, a 37-year-old perfume dealer who, like many Salafists, has a long beard and no mustache. “But you don’t harvest on the same day you spread the seeds.”

Suleiman spoke as he walked the Alexandria waterfront, a place that typifies Egypt’s cultural contrasts. In the cool blue waters of the Mediterranean, women wearing Western-style swimsuits bathe next to others donning the full Islamic hijab.

Suleiman said that he is confident that Islamists are winning the struggle for Egypt’s future direction and that implementation of what he considers true Islamic law is only a matter of time.

“The non-Islamist minority in Egypt is becoming smaller and smaller,” he said, citing last year’s election results.

Hassan Nafaa, a Cairo University political scientist, is less sure. The Islamists won less because of their ideology than because of their reputation for being free of corruption, he said. But after a year in which both the economy and public safety have deteriorated, “there’s a strong fear that they are not capable of ruling this country.”

With a court-ordered rerun of the parliamentary vote expected later this year, Nafaa said the Salafists may try to outflank the Brotherhood and position themselves as the true Islamist alternative. It is not clear, however, whether that will be a winning message.

“We don’t know that the Salafists have gained,” Nafaa said. “I have the impression that all the Islamists have lost a lot.”

 
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