In Response to US Ambassador Anne Patterson

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US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson delivered a speech on June 18 at the headquarters of the Ibn Khaldun Center, a venerated non-governmental organization in Cairo, “to set the record straight” on the US government’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. Patterson defended US support of Egypt’s government, emphasizing its “elected nature.” While she expressed an understanding of what she deemed "conspiracy theories" on US support for the Brotherhood, she ultimately dismissed them, noting that "Egypt deserves better… citizens with open minds who are unafraid to think for themselves." Just one day later, Patterson held a meeting with Khairat al-Shater—a man who holds no government position but is deputy Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood. Indeed, both Patterson’s messaging, reflected in her talk at Ibn Khaldun, and her actions, exemplified by the meeting with al-Shater, lend credence to these same conspiracy theories.

In her speech, Patterson repeated the familiar US government refrain heard throughout the past year: the Morsi government is democratically elected, deriving its legitimacy from a ballot box “that met international standards.” She also derided “street action” in favor of organized political party participation. In doing so, Patterson overlooked the declared US stance of not ‘picking sides,’ but rather supporting democratic principles and standing behind the will of the Egyptian people.

In the past year, Egypt has been the victim of egregious governance failures with thousands suffering from significant power and water outages, fuel shortages, insecurity, and a denial of justice and dignity. With these issues remaining largely unaddressed, the presidency has, over the past year, instead issued a constitutional declaration muzzling the judiciary in November 2012, drafted an oppressive NGO law, and more recently expanded Islamist levers on executive power through select gubernatorial appointments.

Morsi, who won Egypt’s presidential elections by a mere 51 percent, was given a strong boost by revolutionary elements who were disillusioned with other candidates and decided to place their faith in Morsi’s promise to serve as a “president for all Egyptians.” In less than one year, Morsi and his Islamist party have alienated the very group that played a significant role in bringing him to power by usurping the constitutional drafting process and reneging on promises to build consensus. The move resulted in a highly flawed constitutional document stemming from an unconstitutional assembly.

Claiming executive privilege, Morsi issued a constitutional declaration that had several components, including an executive—and unconstitutional—decision to remove the Prosecutor General and grant extensive presidential immunity.

The response to this declaration was swift and unequivocal. In scenes reminiscent of the early days of the uprising, tens of thousands of Egyptians from all walks of life joined to peacefully protest. In the Itihadeya December 5 attacks, protesters were rained upon by supporters of the president, who had been called upon by the Brotherhood’s Essam al-Erian to "defend [Morsi’s] legitimacy." Eleven Egyptians were killed that day, and images of torture and abduction committed by the President’s supporters surfaced. Perhaps most shocking was the documentation of those carrying out the attacks marching in sync like militias, chanting pro-Brotherhood slogans. The state police apparatus, noticeably, stood on the sidelines making no real effort to curtail the violence.

Morsi’s response to the Itihadeya attack, accusing protesters of being paid thugs and affirming the actions of his vigilante supporters only empowered his proponents and encouraged more vigilante action, starting a wave of unfair arrests and politically charged prosecutions of his critics, including activist Alaa Abdel Fattah and media personality Mahmoud Saad. Morsi remained silent as his supporters even laid siege to Egypt’s venerated Supreme Court. With his actions, Morsi effectively lost his claim of being a "president for all Egyptians."

When Morsi immunized his decisions from judicial review, explicitly violating the Constitution he swore to uphold, his legitimacy in the eyes of the law became suspect. Morsi’s subsequent selective respect of judicial decisions depending on how Brotherhood friendly they were further eroded his electoral legitimacy.  Moreover, in the eyes of many Egyptians, Morsi’s popular legitimacy was premised on his campaign commitments to uphold the principles of democracy and respect revolutionary calls for social equality. Consequently, such legitimacy has continued to plummet with the arrests of activists, a crackdown on civil society, flouting of the law and government institutions, and ongoing sectarian violence.  

Coupled with a failing economy and nationwide unrest, the situation is dire; a recent Zogby Research Services poll indicates that support for Morsi is hovering at 28 percent, while over 70 percent of respondents had concerns about the Brotherhood’s vision for Egypt.

With a recognition of the Morsi government’s repression of most institutionalized channels of dissent, Tamarod (Rebel) emerged in May as a grassroots movement with a goal to gather 15 million signatures (higher than the number of votes Morsi won) to withdraw confidence from the President, establish a basis by which to call for early presidential elections, and stage mass peaceful protests on June 30. As of June 20, Tamarod reported it successfully garnered more than 15 million signatures, tapping into a broad segment of the population and a network of volunteers not affiliated with formal political channels. Tamarod’s undeniable success thus far is a testament to the very street action of which Patterson is “deeply skeptical”.

In her remarks and actions, Patterson implicitly chose to side with the Brotherhood regime. Her outreach has been selective, and often focused on the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization in lieu of formal political entities, yet she fails to similarly engage the opposition. She continues to press the opposition to repeatedly participate in specious exercises of national dialogue in which no substantive concessions are made by the Morsi regime. Furthermore, in echoing the Brotherhood’s singular discourse of ‘electoral legitimacy,’ she has alienated the opposition and disregarded the dynamics and voice of the Egyptian street, which has been a powerful yet unpredictable force since Mubarak was overthrown some two and a half years ago.

But legitimacy that comes with an election is neither unqualified nor unconditional. Violating the oath of office and governing undemocratically undermines the legitimacy that can be claimed through the ballot box. An election alone does not a democracy make—Egyptians are fed up with superficial processes and demand the institutionalization of democratic practices; they will do so through any and all legitimate and peaceful means, including but not limited to street action, in coordination with organized political opposition activity.

Rather than understand and remedy the perception that the US is supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, Ambassador Patterson is continuing the age-old US practice in Egypt of being the last man standing to support an authoritarian regime. In so doing, the US is once again putting itself in an increasingly lonely camp, contributing to ongoing instability, and hurting its own image and credibility with the Egyptian people.  

Dina Guirguis is an Egyptian American attorney and activist.

Photo: US Embassy

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