The deposed head of state proved an ineffective president, has he found his calling as a silent symbol of the Brotherhood he wasn’t fit to lead?
Despite official visits from the African Union Delegation and the European Union’s Catherine Ashton, Morsi has not yet appeared publicly, nor has his location been released since his ouster. Some commentators in the west have pointed to Morsi’s detention as indicative of the comprehensive democratic failure that was his ousting. For them, the military coup of a legitimately elected democratic leader is failure enough, but his obscured arrest and detention adds insult to injury. Moreover, it remains a puzzle why the military would continue such actions, certainly his continued imprisonment threatens to further destabilise the country.
To start, it is important to see that even though the military have indeed conducted Morsi’s arrest with complete disregard for due process, there remain legitimate reasons to put the man to trial. Charges of corruption and inciting violence during his one-year term are concern enough.
However, the debate over criminal charges is beside the point I want to emphasise here, and I doubt the army is too concerned with justice. In fact, for them, it is almost irrelevant what he is charged with, only that he is held and prosecuted in some fashion. Furthermore, the army’s choice of doing so with as little transparency as possible should come as no surprise. By acting with such impunity, they continue to give just enough credence to the Brotherhood’s anger that it can continue to fuel their protestors.
The military council has turned Morsi into a symbol: a silent effigy of the man in power the Brotherhood once had. As long as the government holds Morsi, the Brotherhood will have a symbol to fall behind. If Morsi were released and his freedom actualised, his supporters may realise how impossible his reinstatement is. More fatal for the Ikhwan, he may actually have to lead again.
Why then, would the military choose to give life to their greatest present opponent? The answer is twofold: first, the subsequent infighting creates a situation chaotic enough that the military can masquerade as a stabilising force. The efficacy of this should not be underestimated. One only needs to remember that Mubarak maintained power for as long as he did in part through that very technique, forcing many into the mindset that they must choose between dictatorship and chaos. Some inevitably accept such a false dichotomy, even as the military cuts down with one hand what they guard with the other.
The military’s tactic has at least one other motivation, the aforementioned symbolising of Morsi. That is, in keeping the Ikhwan fighting for Morsi, the symbol, the military prevent the potential reconciliation between pro and anti-Morsi factions. The Brotherhood is sinking; the irony is that the very force they seek to defeat tightly holds their final political lifeline. In keeping Morsi symbolic, the military can count on the Brotherhood continuing to manipulate his image, which in turn serves the military’s purposes by dividing revolutionary elements. I suspect the Brotherhood knows they are being played and go along with it anyway.
This brings me to Morsi, the man. If freed, it is not improbable that the Brotherhood, as we know it, would collapse. At the very least, any hopes of returning to a hegemonic position would be dashed. The reason being, if the man were to actually be released, talks with the interim coalition would become a real possibility, but such talks would certainly not mean Morsi returning to power. More troubling for the Brotherhood would be the difficult task of reconciling the idealised fantasy they created in their supporters’ minds with the reality of a man who proved to be an inept leader. Maybe the real question to ask is does the Brotherhood really want Morsi back?
The military’s tactic is a gambit to say the least, and every act of violence gives legitimacy to the Brotherhood’s claims. Moreover, western pundits may have been absolutely right on one count: the continued detention of Morsi, shrouded in secrecy, threatens to send the whole country into chaos beyond even the army’s control. This is clearly a risk the military is willing to take, but their whole tactic rests on the chance that they can consolidate power quickly enough, instate a figurehead and return to the back room with their interests secured, all before people catch on to what’s really happening.
This leaves three notable outcomes for the coming months: The gamble fails, tensions run too high, violence worsens and the situation spirals out of any player’s control. The gamble succeeds, and we’re on to Mubarak 2.0 (or is it Sadat 3.0?). Or, pro-Morsi supporters finally realise they have been living lies manufactured by the military and eagerly sold to them by their own leaders.