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Morsi's demise shows difficulty of leading a country in flux

It is unfair to expect any transitional leader to live up to the standard set by Nelson Mandela, but Mohamed Morsi fell well short.

For a few hours last November it seemed that Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first elected president, might overcome his bumbling persona and rise to the challenge of bringing order and hope to a country in chaos. On November 21, he secured a ceasefire between Israel and the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip, earning praise from Hillary Clinton, then US secretary of state who was visiting Cairo at the time, for his "personal leadership".

The next day, Mr Morsi showed his lack of political nous. He alienated his secular liberal supporters by declaring himself above the law and his decisions beyond the review by Egypt's courts. From that day he became the "new Pharaoh" and his presidency slid into the slow-motion car crash, which ended with his removal on Wednesday night.

Mrs Clinton's reference to leadership highlighted a sobering fact of the Arab world since the revolutions of 2011 swept away a generation of dictators. Not a single leader with vision and charisma has stepped up to fill the shoes of the old autocrats. The defining characteristic of the transition regimes in Egypt and elsewhere is lack of competence and capacity to rule.

The downfall of Mr Morsi makes a poignant contrast with the other drama unfolding at the opposite end of the African continent. With former South African president Nelson Mandela's life ebbing away in a hospital in Pretoria, the world is constantly reminded of his unique legacy: how, with the backing of his party, the African National Congress, and after 27 years in prison, he effected a near miraculous post-apartheid reconciliation.

What the ANC achieved now seems beyond the Muslim Brotherhood. They are both venerable and highly disciplined organisations - the ANC founded in 1912 and the Brotherhood in 1928. Both have their roots in clandestine struggle, but emerged into the open as effective vote winners. The ANC seized its opportunity in the 1994 elections with both hands. The Brotherhood has fluffed its chance.

There are many reasons but the clearest one is the character of the leader. Mr Morsi was a backup candidate after the Brotherhood's more charismatic financier, Khairat Al Shater, was banned from standing for the presidency for having been sentenced to prison by the Mubarak regime.

Wary of taking on too much responsibility, the Brotherhood originally promised not to field a presidential candidate, but went back on its promise and ended up using its victories at the ballot box to impose its will. Out of his depth and feeling under threat from the military, the vocal liberals and supporters of the old regime, Mr Morsi hunkered down. He came to be seen as imposing Muslim Brotherhood values on Egypt, not gathering Egyptians around him.

Mr Mandela's rise to the presidency could not be more different. While in jail he was already a global hero and, as white power in South Africa crumbled, the former "terrorist" and "communist sympathiser" came to be seen as the only solution to prevent a bloodbath.

He did not disappoint. Hailing from a royal family of the Thembu clan, he displayed a natural authority and charm. He served only one term, defying the adage that all political careers end in failure, and retired to live as father of the nation.

It is unfair to expect any transitional leader to live up to the standard set by Mr Mandela. When we think back to the revolutions of eastern Europe in the 1990s we recall some luminous figures - Lech Walesa, the mustachioed electrician at the Gdansk shipyard in Poland; Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet president, appearing on repeated Time magazine covers; or Boris Yeltsin defying the putschists atop a tank in Moscow in 1991.

But all these men were limited in their own ways, and had to give way to others. Who remembers the cast of oddballs thrown up by this process? Best forgotten is the first freely elected president of Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, an emotionally unstable character who came close to destroying the country during his eight-month rule. In truth, a successful transitional leader is a rarity.

During his last address to the nation, Mr Morsi harped repeatedly on the issue of his "legitimacy". He may have been legitimately elected but he lacked some equally important attributes. First is the understanding that democracy means the people are no longer guided by fear, but by hope. Mr Morsi inspired neither hope nor fear.

The second attribute is the elusive virtue of authenticity, which is more resonant than the formal legitimacy of the ballot box. Authenticity is the quality that allows a politician to convince people beyond the core supporters that he or she embodies the country's future. Mr Mandela has it. Boris Yeltsin had it in 1991 but lost it while in power. Strangely, Ayatollah Khomeini had it during the Iranian revolution of 1979, when his timeless persona contrasted favourably with the Shah's westernised court. This enabled him to bring on board some liberal supporters from beyond the confines of the Shia religious hierarchy. (He outmanoeuvred them later, but that is a separate story).

Without the ability to convince his people that he is an authentic expression of Egyptian modernity, Mr Morsi was never going to lead his country to a new settlement. Which points to a gloomy conclusion. For all the talk of revolution in 2011, the poles of Egyptian politics have not changed radically since the 1950s, when Gamal Abdel Nasser was in power and repressed the Brotherhood. The contest is still between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. The secular liberals are squeezed between these two poles. They can create a movement such as Tamarrod, which brought down Mr Morsi with street protests, yet they do not have an organised party behind them. And no Egyptian movement - army, Muslim Brotherhood or secularists - has a real authentic national leader.

 

aphilps@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @aphilps

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