The Bureaucracy Wins

By Ibrahim el-Houdaiby - Guest contributor | Apr 14, 2013
The Bureaucracy Wins

Ten months have passed since the election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi as Egypt’s first post-uprising president. During his election campaign, Morsi repeatedly promised “change.” So far, however, it appears that Egypt’s bureaucracy has been more successful at changing Morsi’s plans and discourse than he has been at changing the state’s structures.

The state Morsi inherited was far from healthy. With a gigantic bureaucracy, a long-standing legacy of state patronage, a wide network of interests, and a heavy presence of military personnel, introducing serious structural changes to the state was never going to be easy. Morsi also inherited a deteriorating economy partially due to the aggressive neoliberal reforms Mubarak adopted in the last decade of his rule as well as to the military’s mediocre economic management. Nonetheless, during his campaign Morsi promised to restructure the security sector, transform the judicial system, reform the country’s political structures to ensure deeper democracy with more responsibility and accountability, and lay the foundation for rapid yet equitable economic growth.

In the first round of elections, Morsi also presented himself as the only Islamist candidate who would Islamize the country, push for Muslim unity, and work to liberate Jerusalem. In the second round, he added more promises, including a commitment to a 100-day plan to resolve problems of traffic, energy, and bread distribution. More than 200 days have passed and the promises have not been fulfilled. Instead, the president is increasingly speaking Mubarak’s language by supporting policies that reflect the state’s interests and biases.

While outside forces help to escalate the economic crisis and worsen security conditions, much of the trouble is due to the president’s own decisions. For example, Morsi’s constitutional declaration of November 2012 that gave him sweeping powers led to street violence, further reduced tourism, and negatively impacted the stock market.

Like most current Muslim Brotherhood leaders, Morsi has few political credentials outside his work in the organization itself. As a professor of engineering he was not known to be a man of ideas, and he never engaged in intellectual debates. Instead, his credentials are rooted in discipline, dedication, political conservatism, and a willingness to compromise. These attributes helped Morsi ascend the Brotherhood hierarchy. He worked for the group’s political office in his hometown of Sharqiyya for some years before he was elected to parliament for the first (and only) time in 2000. In 2002 after the dismissal of the Brotherhood’s Gamal Heshmat from parliament, Morsi was selected to be speaker of the group’s parliamentary block. Two years later, and upon the death of a handful of members, the organization’s executive council invited Morsi and others to join it. He soon headed the group’s political bureau and was given more tasks after Deputy Chairman Khairat el-Shater’s imprisonment in 2006.

Shortly after Mubarak’s ouster in 2011, the Brotherhood leadership selected Morsi as the first president of its newly established political party, the Freedom and Justice Party. When the group decided to reverse its decision not to run candidates in the presidential election, el-Shater was the leadership’s first choice. Legal loopholes led to el-Shater’s exclusion from the candidates’ list, and Morsi replaced him. He won 51.8 percent of the second round’s total vote against Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last appointed prime minister.

On 1 July 2012, Morsi walked into the presidential palace as Egypt’s first elected president. He had no clear vision. The Brotherhood’s “renaissance project,” in which the organization’s representatives met with leaders in such countries as Turkey and Singapore in order to learn from their successes, was revealed later to be no more than election propaganda.[1] In fact, Morsi and his party had insufficient knowledge of the status of Egypt’s security, economic, and bureaucratic institutions—and as such had no plan as to how to restructure them.

Morsi also faced serious hostility from strong networks of interests within the state, particularly within the military, the judiciary, the ministries of interior and finance, and the media, as well as other groups and individuals tied to the state, such as local business cronies and Mubarak’s regional and international allies. Essentially, senior officials aimed to sustain their positions; institutions aimed to maintain the structures that preserve their power and keep accountability at bay; and networks surrounding the state aimed to ensure the continuity of Mubarak-era economic and foreign policies that promote their interests. With his lack of strategy and political savvy, Morsi had no alternative but to surrender to their rules of the game and to even (almost) play on their side.

It is this context that best explains Morsi’s performance and decisions over the past months. Despite the fact that he and the Muslim Brotherhood have won certain battles, they have been incapable of selecting the right ones. The group’s rapid political ascent was not accompanied by the development of a strategy for governance or a plan for effectively confronting hostility and resistance from the state. Morsi has thus been caught between two contradictory interests: those of the bureaucracy and those of the voters who supported him and who demand reform.

With no clear idea of how to dismantle corrupt institutions and maintain the people’s sovereignty, Morsi seems to have decided to pursue status quo policies while adopting a populist rhetoric promising change. The former is intended to maintain power by avoiding provoking what he views as the more powerful domestic and foreign players. The latter aims to sidestep his supporters’ frustration, which is caused by the lack of Islamization or change in general.

This strategy explains Morsi’s contradictory policies, including dismissing senior Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) leaders Mohamed Tantawi and Sami Annan but failing to include civilian control over the military in the new constitution; verbal attacks on businessmen and remnants of the Mubarak regime while at the same time appointing some of the old guard to ministerial posts and allowing business representatives to accompany him on foreign trips; and his careful verbal boycott of Israel in his speeches paired with the rapid destruction of tunnels to Gaza.

In many ways, this dual strategy has been brought about by the president’s association with the Brotherhood. Being a multi-faced organization with social and political arms, competing and sometimes even contradictory ideological leanings, and varied socioeconomic interests, the Brotherhood has learned how to maintain unity at the cost of clarity. Over time, it developed a set of ambiguous uniting principles: a belief that Islam is an all-encompassing system; the rejection of violence as a means of bringing about domestic political change; an acceptance of democracy as a political system; and support for resistance movements operating against foreign occupation.

But these principles do not distinguish it from broader Egyptian society, and they are therefore too vague to provide organizational strength. The way the Brotherhood ensured real coherence is through an identity politics in which threats to the organization boost unity and delay serious questions. In particular, the pre-uprising recurrent waves of arrests in a “state of emergency” provided the threat that forced the Brotherhood to adopt a defensive stand and focus on survival. The leadership was then given leeway to postpone intellectual and policy concerns.

By adopting this defensive stance throughout the years, the group developed a pyramid-shaped hierarchy to ensure that members executed the aims of its national leadership. Unity was maintained by narrowing the decision-making circles, while members’ need for empowerment was substituted with a strong sense of duty based on a history of sacrifice, resilience, and strong fraternal bonds among members. External threats automatically created a homogeneous, obedient, and disciplined organization. This is not to suggest that there were no differences of thought or outlook within the Brotherhood, but that the leadership capitalized on these differences. Members were tasked with activities in line with their interests, but they always operated within the framework put forward by the leadership.

Today, the focus on survival, the tendency to resort to vague formulae, a lack of political savvy, and a willingness to compromise are key factors in Morsi’s positions. Maintaining unity requires no more than the (re)creation of an external threat to divert attention from political and strategic failures and deficits. The group’s new threat is created through the reintroduction of the notion of conspiracy. The organization has attributed its failure to push forward a relevant legislative agenda to deal with questions of economic development and distribution, judicial reform, and security sector reform to the government’s “irresponsiveness,” which it says is meant to embarrass the Brotherhood-led parliament.[2]

The Party’s parliamentarians also blamed SCAF for misusing its de facto presidential legitimacy to counter democracy, claiming that filing a presidential candidate became the only remaining solution to curb the military’s power. After Morsi became president and dismissed senior SCAF leaders and abolished the declaration that gave SCAF legislative authority, he continued to blame the judiciary for his failures though he retained both executive and legislative powers until the new constitution was ratified in December 2012. Even now—with the presidency, a majority in the legislative body, and the ratification of its approved constitution—the Brotherhood blames the opposition and the media for its lack of achievement.[3]

So far, this strategy has proven successful in maintaining organizational unity, yet it has failed on two fronts. First, such sidestepping does nothing to resolve Egypt’s economic woes. Consequently, and as the crisis deepens with expected hyperinflation and the elimination of subsidies, Brotherhood sympathizers will be less inclined to support the group and less responsive to its application of identity politics. Second, because the strategy justifies accepting the status quo, it will lead to the gradual decay of the leadership’s legitimacy, especially with more credible voices putting forth alternative platforms for political change and continuing to expose the current leadership’s lack of vision. While Morsi’s political opponents often criticize him for the “Ikhwanization of the state,” it is becoming evident that the more important phenomenon taking place is the bureaucratization of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood as a whole.


[1] “El-Shater: We Do Not Have a Clear Program for the Renaissance Project,” published 27 August 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=96WuDfJDrPY.

[2]  “Ghozlan: Insisting on Keeping the Ganzouri Government is an Attempt to Fail the Parliament,” Shorouk News, 20 March 2012, http://www.shorouknews.com/news/view.aspx?cdate=20032012&id=2dfa3772-67d....

[3] “Ghozlan: Media Practicing Incitement and Thuggery, Inconsiderate of the Country’s Circumstances,” Shorouk News, 4 March 2013, http://www.shorouknews.com/news/view.aspx?cdate=04032013&id=366ff5fd-533...