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October 24, 2014

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Dire conditions in a torn country

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The Daily News of Egypt reported that the national administrative court ruled last week that the popular Al-Tet “belly dancing channel” be taken off the air for broadcasting without a license. Who knew that Egypt had a belly dancing channel? (Does Comcast know about this?) It is evidently quite popular but apparently offensive to some of the rising Islamist forces in Egypt.

It is not clear how much the Muslim Brotherhood’s party had to do with the belly ban, but what is clear is that no one in Egypt is having much fun these days.

The country is more divided than ever between Islamist and less religious and liberal parties, and the Egyptian currency has lost 8 percent of its value against the dollar in the past two months. Even more disturbing, there has been a sharp increase lately in cases of police brutality and rape directed at opposition protesters. It is all adding up to the first impression that President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are blowing their first chance at power.

Sometime in the next few months, Morsi is to visit the White House. He has only one chance to make a second impression if he wants to continue to receive U.S. aid from Congress. But the more I see of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt, the more I wonder if it has any second impression to offer.

Since the start of the 2011 revolution in Tahrir Square, every time the Muslim Brotherhood faced a choice of whether to behave in an inclusive way or grab more power, true to its Bolshevik tendencies, it grabbed more power and sacrificed inclusion. This was true whether it was about how quickly to hold elections (before the opposition could organize) or how quickly to draw up and vote on a new constitution (before opposition complaints could be addressed) or how broadly to include opposition figures in the government (as little as possible). The opposition is not blameless — it has taken too long to get its act together — but Morsi’s power grab will haunt him.

Egypt is in dire economic condition. Youth unemployment is rampant, everything is in decay, tourism and foreign investment and reserves are down sharply. As a result, Egypt needs an IMF bailout. Any bailout, though, will involve economic pain — including cuts in food and fuel subsidies to shrink Egypt’s steadily widening budget deficit. This will hurt.

In order to get Egyptians to sign on to that pain, a big majority needs to feel invested in the government and its success. And that is not the case today. Morsi desperately needs a national unity government, made up of a broad cross-section of Egyptian parties, but, so far, the Muslim Brotherhood has failed to reach any understanding with the National Salvation Front, the opposition coalition.

Egypt also desperately needs foreign investment to create jobs. There are billions of dollars of Egyptian capital sitting outside the country today, because Egyptian investors, particularly Christians, are fearful of having money confiscated or themselves arrested on specious charges, as happened to some after President Hosni Mubarak’s fall.

One of the best things Morsi could do for himself and for Egypt would be to announce an amnesty of everyone from the Mubarak era who does not have blood on his hands or can be proved in short order to have stolen government money. Egypt needs every ounce of its own talent and capital it can mobilize back home. This is no time for revenge.

The Brotherhood, though, doesn’t just need a new governing strategy. It needs to understand that its version of political Islam — which is resistant to women’s empowerment and religious and political pluralism — might be sustainable if you are Iran or Saudi Arabia, and you have huge reserves of oil and gas to buy off all the contradictions between your ideology and economic growth. But if you are Egypt and basically your only natural resource is your people — men and women — you need to be as open to the world and modernity as possible to unleash all of their potential for growth.

Bottom line: Either the Muslim Brotherhood changes or it fails — and the sooner it realizes that, the better. I understand why President Barack Obama’s team prefers to convey this message privately: so the political forces in Egypt don’t start focusing on us instead of on each other. That’s wise. But I don’t think we are conveying this message forcefully enough.

And Egyptian democracy advocates certainly don’t. In an open letter to Obama last week in Al-Ahram Weekly, the Egyptian human rights activist Bahieddin Hassan wrote Obama that the muted “stances of your administration have given political cover to the current authoritarian regime in Egypt and allowed it to fearlessly implement undemocratic policies and commit numerous acts of repression.”

It would not be healthy for us to re-create with the Muslim Brotherhood the bargain we had with Mubarak. That is, just be nice to Israel and nasty to the jihadists and you can do whatever you want to your own people out back. It also won’t be possible. The Egyptian people tolerated that under Mubarak for years. But now they are mobilized, and they have lost their fear. Both we and Morsi need to understand that this old bargain is not sustainable any longer.

Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.

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  1. In a democracy, like Egypt, it's not the first president that is elected that matters. It's the second. Such is the case with Morsi.

    CarmineD