09.25.12 1:49 AM ET
Welcome to the Free World, President Morsi
Egypt’s new President Mohamed Morsi, will address the United Nations for the first time on Wednesday. It’s another busy day in a busy three months for the first Muslim Brotherhood president of the Arab world’s most populous country.
On Aug. 12, Morsi struck hard against Egypt’s army, once the country’s ultimate power center. He fired the defense minister and the chief of staff of the army, and forced the retirement of many generals.
That same day, he issued a declaration claiming broad executive powers – including the power to write much of Egypt’s promised new constitution
In August too, the Egyptian government ordered a TV off the air – and its owner prosecuted – for airing a program critical of President Morsi and his political party. The government also arrested the editor of a small independent newspaper and seized every copy of his paper after it published an editorial warning of a coming Egyptian emirate. The editor will face prosecution on charges of “insulting the president.”
To prevent future insults, the government has appointed 53 new editors of Egypt’s government-owned newspapers.
Of course, not every day is a working day.
Although Egypt continues to receive $2 billion a year in US aid, President Morsi was conspicuously tongue-tied about the attack on America’s Cairo embassy earlier in September. He waited nearly a full day to condemn the attacks. Although an estimated 2,000 people took part, only four were arrested.
Yet even as Egyptian police dealt leniently with violent anti-American mobs, they were arresting on September 13 a computer science student, Christian by origin, accused by his neighbors of uploading a copy of the YouTube video, “Innocence of Muslims.”
Meet the new Egypt, worse than the old Egypt.
Egypt is getting worse too for the estimated 40 million Egyptians who have never heard of YouTube because they live on less than $2 a day. They are the population hardest-pressed by the Morsi government’s acceleration of Egypt’s chronic economic crisis.
Three years ago, tourism employed one out of every eight Egyptians.
Political instability and the advent of Islamism have crushed the industry, with traffic plummeting by perhaps one-third according to best estimates. (Egyptian statistics are notoriously approximate.)
Government finances are careening toward bankruptcy, threatening – among other things – the food subsidies that constitute Egypt’s most important social welfare program. Those subsidies consumed 25% of government spending during the Mubarak years. What will happen now as the new Morsi government has less to spend? One-third of all Egyptians who work for wages (ie, excluding peasant farmers) work for the state, directly or indirectly. Who will pay them as Egypt’s finances crater? Egypt has already asked the International Monetary Fund for emergency aid of $4.8 billion. Will that keep Egypt eating? The country is already the world’s leading importer of wheat – and 2012 was a year of drought in the United States that has sent wheat prices soaring worldwide.
The ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood has oddly little to say about economics. The Muslim Brotherhood draws its strength from the Egyptian countryside, but it is not at all a party of the poor. It speaks rather for Egypt’s non-globalized professionals and property-owners: people who possess a little more than their neighbors, but who mistrust the wider world. That mistrust often takes the form of obsessive – and violent - fear of Jews. Here’s a clip from an Egyptian “candid camera” television program. It pranks a local actor by telling him that the supposedly German interview show on which he thought he was appearing is (equally fictitiously) Israeli instead. He turns on his (female) interviewer and strikes her.
In a pre-visit interview with the New York Times, President Morsi audaciously announced his preconditions for accepting the American aid he needs to save his country from plunging even deeper into crisis.
[President Morsi] said it was up to Washington to repair relations with the Arab world and to revitalize the alliance with Egypt, long a cornerstone of regional stability.
If Washington is asking Egypt to honor its treaty with Israel, he said, Washington should also live up to its own Camp David commitment to Palestinian self-rule. He said the United States must respect the Arab world’s history and culture, even when that conflicts with Western values.
It’s important to understand how little leverage Egypt has to make such demands. True, Egypt can make mischief in its region for Israel and the United States. But the mischief Egypt can make is negligible compared to the catastrophic troubles Egypt faces. Keep that in mind if President Morsi chooses to be rude. In an interview last with Univision, President Obama declined to call Egypt an ally. Maybe that was a gaffe, maybe a much-deserved rap on the Egyptian knuckles. Egypt was an ally. Now it’s a client – and a client that’s not well placed to demand that the US rescind the First Amendment and prosecute two-bit producers for making videos not to the Egyptian government’s liking.