What’s in a president?

Sure, the national anthem’s great and everything — but for an entire generation of Egyptians there’s another song that more accurately captures that first realization of nationalistic awareness. At 11-minutes long and featuring a galaxy of the country’s most polished pop-stars, Ikhtarnah wa Bayeanah (We Chose Him and Stood Behind Him) was as bloated as the regime it so shamelessly celebrated; an over-the-top stage production privately performed to the obvious delight of the first family and their cronies, and aggressively re-run by state television on national holidays and Hosni Mubarak’s birthday.

It was the product of a culture that existed to elevate the leader to a god-like status, but as recent history has proven, gods can be toppled just as spare tires can be slashed – during the first post-Mubarak presidential elections, Mohamed Morsi was dubbed a spare tire. And with the reins of power exchanging hands between judges, generals and former ministers, the events of the past two years have only seen more question marks surround the already questionable office of the presidency.

Speaking from the middle of the pro-Morsi sprawl that has occupied the Rabea al-Adaweya intersection in Nasr City for the past two weeks, 24-year-old engineering graduate Mohamed Ismail Taha admits he had his reservations regarding the former president. “I had problems with Morsi,” he states, “but I have bigger problems with the way he was removed, and the precedent set by that.”

“[Morsi] was accused of working to divide the country, but the military actually managed to do that with one swift move. They’ve widened this rift that already existed and, worse still, robbed the presidency of its stature,” Taha claims. “Now they [the military] are calling for elections, but what’s the point of electing a leader if he can be so easily overthrown by a third party?”

It’s an opinion expressed by many at the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in, with several members offering Mada Masr a more forgiving assessment of the former president, either as a man facing insurmountable obstacles or one stranded in the midst of corrupt politicians.

“The real solution,” Ibrahim Metwaly, a 41-year-old restaurant employee offers, “would have been to dismiss the Cabinet, and hold a referendum over the formation of a new one around President Morsi. But to overthrow a president and isolate him only a quarter of the way into his term, and right after the last one was overthrown, is a farce.”

Yet, opponents of this viewpoint have argued that the “stature” of the presidency had already suffered several blows under a partisan ruler with seemingly no regard for the sinking economy, crumbling infrastructure, escalating crime levels or any of the other sirens screaming throughout his time in office, including the demands of the January 25 revolution.

Detractors have also argued that Morsi’s administration only expanded on the excessiveness of the previous regime, whether in the violence with which it met its opponents, or in the cultivation of a public “prestige” that served to infuriate large segments of society. While Mubarak’s supporters claimed that he was all that stood between Egypt and utter chaos, Morsi’s supporters claim he is all that stands between Egypt and the war on Islam. Mubarak propaganda portrayed the then-president as a war hero, Morsi’s as a soldier of God. And while it can be argued that a fair amount of the most hyperbolic pro-Morsi propaganda isn’t directly commissioned by the state (largely because the state took a backseat to the Brotherhood), a comparison can — and probably should — be made to his administration’s numerous attempts to mobilize civilians for its own cause.

Almost two weeks after erupting in celebration at the news of Morsi’s ouster, Tahrir Square is still a scene of high spirits, although there is a definite wariness over the violence that has passed, and that many are certain is still to come.

“Getting rid of Morsi was a good thing, but it also means we’re in for some difficult times,” says Sherif Nazih, a 29-year-old marketer currently working on a photo series of Tahrir during the month of Ramadan. “Even if the Morsi supporters fade away without some sort of major escalation — which they won’t — what’s to stop them from taking to the streets as soon as the next president is elected?”

“If Morsi is reinstated, the presidency loses legitimacy. And if he isn’t, the presidency loses legitimacy. So, how does it regain any standing amongst the population?” he asks.

The problem, Nazih feels, is that beyond the ideals of the revolution, there is little that actually unites the different segments of Egyptian society. “What we shared under Mubarak — this widespread belief that we were all powerless — was what united us,” he says. “What we share in the absence of Mubarak — the widespread knowledge that we can set our own path — is what divides us.”

This, he explains, is the reason why the last presidential elections came down to the two “most extreme” candidates. “And the options will only become more extreme because the people are increasingly divided. We’ll keep overthrowing presidents but it won’t stop when we find a ‘good’ one because that blanket definition of good doesn’t exist. It’ll only stop when a stronger force interferes and puts us all down — again.”

While cautious over the current instability, others see the recent overturning of the presidency as a potentially positive step for the nation, as well as the office itself.

“The Muslim Brotherhood were not efficient or capable in their rule, which is why it had to be brought to an end,” historian Assem Dessouky suggests. “They displayed a total failure in dealing with the mechanics of society to the extent that an unprecedented number of people rose up against them.”

“The Brotherhood is loyal to only one cause: their own organization,” Dessouky stresses, “so they treated the presidency in the same manner and made it loyal to their cause,” — in itself an unprecedented act.

“If you look at Egyptian history, King Farouk used his power to protect his interests — his capital — at the expense of the middle class and the peasantry. Abdel Nasser, using the very same article in the 1923 constitution (Article 48), protected the interests of the middle class and peasantry at the expense of the fat cats who made up 0.5 percent of society — which is why there were no strikes or protests for housing or unemployment or education in Nasser’s time. Sadat switched it back, again, using his interpretation of Article 48, and Mubarak kept the trend going.”

“Then Morsi came along,” Dessouky continues, “and used the Constitution to protect himself and his brothers in an international organization.” In other words, they were not acting along any social, or national lines; a situation which, Dessouky explains, obliterates the parameters that define the presidency.

Despite having resigned from his post, Ayman al-Sayyad, former assistant to Morsi, believes the raging debates over the legitimacy of the presidency will only strengthen the institution behind the seat of power. “The presidency is no longer the same as it was, but now it can play a bigger, more effective role,” he argues.

“Before the revolution, the office of the presidency was all about prestige, and a case of style over little substance. But now, Egyptians — especially the younger generations — have their eyes open and honed on every tiny detail.”

“The attention and interest is there, the savvy-ness is growing,” Sayyad observes. “Some people claim the youth are losing faith in the mechanics of politics and the concept of democracy but I think they’re just restless out of anxiety and concern for their future. They’re impatient and any upcoming leader will have to deal with that.”

“But anxiety, at this stage,” he adds, “will only help democracy, not stifle it as some have claimed.”

Dessouky agrees. “At the end of the day, the position is made by the man. Of course, certain parameters have to be set, and it’s up to the Egyptian people to choose wisely next time. That said, I would hope that the whole argument of ‘the president is good but those around him are bad,’ like we used to hear about Mubarak, is something that we’ve outgrown by now. But I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Ali Abdel Mohsen 

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