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Is Anti-Zionism Morsi’s Best Shot at Relevance?

Now that the Egyptian army has signed off on Mohamed Morsi as the country’s new president, the question hanging in the air is how much authority, if any, he has—and what he’ll do with it.

As things stand, Morsi has few formal powers. During its mid-election power grab, the military took control over all legislative matters and drastically reduced the president’s clout. Meanwhile, the state bureaucracy is still loyal to its masters in uniform. (Today’s court decision limiting the military’s ability to arrest civilians does not significantly change the balance of power.)

The Financial Times argues that Morsi has to pull off a broad political alliance to effectively yet peacefully oppose the army. But Morsi—a proponent of sharia—has his opponents in both the liberal and Islamist camps; whether he can unite and represent such disparate interests remains to be seen. Yesterday he promised to appoint a female and a Christian as vice presidents.

While the Muslim Brotherhood has a powerful network of civil groups and institutions, in the contest with the military for power, Morsi can only win if the public is actively engaged. He doesn’t just need passive support — good performance ratings in the polls — he has to have the backing of organized groups who can and will demonstrate and defy the military when and if the power contest is acute.

But public opinion is fickle, and the military so far has pursued of a strategy of wearing its opponents down rather than confronting them. Morsi has to worry about more than the public getting tired of politics. Public opinion is also likely to turn on him the longer he fails to produce any change, especially in the economy, which is tanking. From parliament to president, the victory of the Islamists was based on their promises to end state corruption and repression; if Morsi fails to deliver, the army expects his public support—and the intrigue of Islamism—to fizzle.

But there is one weapon Morsi can use to needle the army and apply some serious pressure: opposition to Israel. Not only is Sadat’s peace treaty widely unpopular in Egypt, but anti-Zionism also unites the passions of both nationalism and Islam, the two most powerful forces in the country’s psychology. The army, by contrast, has no intention of tearing up the treaty or otherwise provoking tension with Israel, but its immunity from popular disapproval is not absolute. This is one issue where Morsi can enflame public opinion until the generals treat the president with a little more respect.

Under Nasser, the Egyptian military republic combined nationalism with passionate anti-Zionism as, among other things, a way to reduce the support for radical Islam. After Sadat’s treaty, anti-Zionism became one of the main Islamist talking points in the country. That remains the case today.

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  • thibaud

    Dr Jekyll-Mead soars. Shrewd, knowledgeable, original, persuasive. Thank you.

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