There are no great men

The “great men” theory of history got a bit of a test today in Egypt, and it failed. You might have noticed that yesterday and earlier today, twitter was abuzz with comments about the coming speech by President Morsi, which many expected to put forth a response of sorts to the public outcry over his new executive powers. Even now that’s what most overseas journalists are reporting on (only available in French at the moment). But his speech really didn’t cover much, or at least feel very responsive to many protesters.


(Protests in Itihadiya among other parts of Egypt continued unabated following the speech. Originally from here.)

If you actually read what’s being said on the ground though, it’s another story. The only way to understand what’s happened is not to focus on him, but the larger social context. The political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood has increasingly played second fiddle to its social organization, breeding a more conservative political force than what it presented itself as being. In the perceived power vacuum following the fall of the Mubarak regime, the military and Brotherhood emerged as allies who carved out a government together, which wouldn’t so much reform Egypt as replace the previous dictatorship. As Morsi became president and the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood became the dominant international media narrative, his government couldn’t help noticing how unrepresentative their Salafi Islamism was. But still, this was their chance to chase down that ever illusive idea of an authentically and adequately Islamic state, so emergency powers were the order of the day, even if they only widened the gap between ruler and ruled.

Morsi made a choice about what to say today, and he said the wrong thing, but because of the series of social forces that shaped his country, his party, and him. He’s neither the leader Egypt needs nor the leader who can make it into a country that needs him. His days look about as numbered as Mubarak’s had been.

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