The Joke’s on Morsi

Jewish Light Editorial

The administration of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi is really struggling to come up with new excuses for its utter inability to govern well either economically or democratically.

Blame Israel and Jews. Blame the U.S. Blame Coptics. Blame comedians.

Comedians? Huh?

Yes, in arresting the well known Bassem Youssef, along with others who dare question the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi, the Egyptian government has turned to the age-old tactic of stifling political and religious dissent. In this case, however, the action taken against an extremely popular public figure is likely to backfire and point the mirror upon what has largely been a failed governance effort.


The Muslim Brotherhood’s political franchise is fast eroding in Egypt. When the first elections were held after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, the group racked up almost three-quarters of the votes and seats. Since then, the only direction the Brotherhood has been going is down.

When Morsi ran for president last year, his victory over Mubarak’s last prime minister was won by a 52-to-48 percent majority. And in the first round of student council elections nationwide recently, Brotherhood candidates got under 30 percent of the vote.

There’s no secret why Youssef, a Western-trained physician, a You Tube sensation during the 2011 unrest, and host of The Program, Egypt’s most popular show, is receiving such positive attention from citizens and negative attention from officials: Nothing’s going particularly well in Egypt, and those who talk about it loudly and widely are seen as fomenting dissent.

Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show”, has eviscerated Egyptian leaders for attempting to silence Youssef, who’s now free on bail. But Morsi’s not only being skewered by jokesters; the world’s looking closely at whether the president’s claims of a democratic society jibe with the reality of aggressively Islamist leadership.

Amnesty International, for instance, recently cited “alarming new escalation of politically-motivated judicial harassment and arrests” in Egypt. The U.S. State Department, through a spokesperson, was similarly troubled, pointing to “evidence of a disturbing trend of growing restrictions on freedom of expression.”

The criticism of Morsi and his colleagues reflects a growing unease about his leadership and about living conditions in Egypt. As Peter Hessler reported from Cairo in The New Yorker last week, “There’s no shortage of bad news coming out of Egypt these days. Most of what appears in the foreign press is dramatic — protests, arrests, fights — but on the ground it feels more subtle: a slow erosion rather than a collapse. You notice that prices are steadily rising, a sign of Egypt’s dwindling currency reserves. You see dozens of vehicles lined up at gas stations. Daily electricity cuts have started earlier in the year than usual; everybody says this will be a hard summer.”

It’s not that Mubarak didn’t suppress dissent; his rule was by thuglike iron fist, and it’s unlikely that Youssef would even have come to the airwaves at all during his rule. But the Arab Spring promise of a “people’s revolution” is rapidly disappearing as Egyptians are swiftly discovering that everything old is new again: The king is dead, long live the king.

The problem for Morsi is how to restore public confidence in the presence of huge unemployment and civil unrest. Those without jobs – the official figure stands at about 13 percent but that doesn’t count many of those in the cash economy – are not only without resources, but many are also young and energetic and able to lend a voice against the failed efforts of the administration.

Morsi may be trying to walk a line between what’s best for his country and what will most fruitfully serve his own political career, but he’s not going to succeed in that endeavor. The Brotherhood’s insistence on taking the nation farther from modern social norms is inherently contrary to attracting what Egypt most needs, which is international commerce, largely in the form of tourism revenue, to bolster a flailing economy.

Youssef and his fellow social critics understand this, and know that without religious tolerance and other markers of civil liberty protections, Egypt is doomed to another long cycle of economic failure and persistent internal strife. Morsi and his Brotherhood associates probably know this intellectually, but their dogmatic refusal to build a truly inclusive and democratic infrastructure is becoming their rapid undoing.

We’re not ready to say that Arab Spring in Egypt is an outright failure; the upshot from revolutions is a long and messy road, one rife with fallen ideologies and bodies, and prediction is a tricky if not impossible exercise. But if the best Morsi and his minions have got is a focus and clampdown on Youssef and other social critics, the long run will be marked by suppression, embitterment and poverty.  And that’s no laughing matter.