Searching for the elusive Arab Mandela

After the 2011 uprisings, distrust and polarization have damaged hopes for reconciliation

Mohamed Morsi, center, speaks to the press alongside other Muslim Brotherhood leaders days after escaping from prison during the 2011 uprising in Egypt, before his election to and ouster from the presidency.
Khaled Elfiqi/EPA

When Mohamed Morsi escaped from an Egyptian prison on Jan. 30, 2011, during the anarchic uprising against Hosni Mubarak, he could not have foreseen the unlikely road that would make him the country's first democratically elected president and almost as quickly send him back to jail, leaving his movement smashed and thousands of his supporters dead.
That day, Morsi and six other Muslim Brotherhood leaders were stranded on a highway some 60 miles northwest of Cairo, just outside the desert prison where armed men had freed them and hundreds of others minutes earlier.
"I tell you now, and I tell the world, we will not flee," Morsi shouted during a telephone interview with Al Jazeera Arabic. "If there's anyone in charge in Egypt, he should call us. We're here. I'm here. There's a telephone here. We're all here waiting for someone responsible. We will never flee."

The words seemed resolute, but his voice sounded stunned, perhaps even fearful that in the chaos the regime would go looking for him and the other Brotherhood members it had jailed just two days earlier.
It was an inauspicious beginning for someone Tawakkol Karman, the Yemeni journalist and Nobel Prize winner, later referred to as "the Arab world's Nelson Mandela." But few Egyptians ever considered Morsi a Mandela, and with the world mourning the Dec. 5 death of the South African former president, many Arabs have asked whether they will ever find such a leader for themselves — a figure who inspires revolutionaries, sets aside decades of feuds and fears born of state oppression and makes peace among battling partisans.
But that near mythical vision of Mandela overlooks the struggle that preceded his victory and the fact that his achievements were not only a product of his personal qualities but also of the system that produced him and the conditions in which he operated.

Whereas Mandela emerged from 27 years of imprisonment a hero to his movement, committed after decades of struggle and contemplation to negotiate with foes who had finally decided to concede to majority rule and resolve a decades-old racial conflict, Morsi was his party's backup choice for president and the face of a religious organization that saw enemies — real and imagined — in every corner.
While the struggle of South Africa's black majority was aimed at winning the democratic rights available only to the white minority under apartheid, the question posed after the Arab uprisings became simply who would wield political power. And whereas Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) had established itself as the dominant political force among black South Africans, the political field after 2011 in Egypt — and divided, neighboring Libya — was fractured and mistrusted.

No place for reconciliation

In Egypt, opponents sought to sabotage the insular and distrustful Brotherhood, which in turn alienated allies and set off a zero-sum fight to implement its vision for the country's constitution. In Libya, where bloody reprisals for past wrongs have become the order of the day, technocrats and dissidents who fled Muammar Gaddafi's murderous regime returned to the country after his fall to govern a distrustful populace, lacking the power to confront the local militias that had fought to topple the dictator.
Two years on, the leaderless uprisings of 2011 have left their instigators behind and given way to political battles among elites, some of whom have sought the autocratic powers left behind by their predecessors. In Egypt and elsewhere, it is an unkind environment for reconciliation.
"When you overthrow the dictator, who are you going to reconcile with?" asked Mustafa Abu Shagour, a computer engineer and former exile who served as deputy prime minister and briefly prime minister in Libya's post-Gaddafi government. "(Mandela) was not bitter against the white South Africans. He knew that they were part of the country and they have the right to live free like the rest ... We need to understand, when a regime comes for 40 years, everybody has to work for the regime."

But politicians in Egypt and Libya lack the legitimacy Mandela enjoyed as head of a popular, time-tested party. They cannot boast the support of a grass-roots democracy movement, and activists from such movements now find themselves co-opted, sidelined or jailed, unable to gain political power and too suspicious to work with associates of former rulers. The lesson of Mandela's legacy may not be the need for a singular leader so much as the necessity of a popular, grass-roots organization like the ANC to support him.

"I don't think we can do this comparison of replicating one another. Each experience is unique in its own way," said Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian politician and leader in the movement to boycott Israeli goods who studied the examples of the ANC and international anti-apartheid movements. "It wasn't just Nelson Mandela. It was many, many great leaders. Maybe his greatness was in the fact that he was one among many."

Egypt's lost opportunity

Neither the one nor the many seem present these days in Egypt, where the political scene is split among Morsi's supporters, who view themselves as defenders of democracy, and almost every other political force, most of whom joined with the army to oppose the Brotherhood, which they considered an existential threat. The military coup that overthrew Morsi and continues to divide the nation enjoyed the support of millions.

Some Egyptians said they saw a Mandela in Anwar Sadat, who made peace with Israel as Egypt's president in the 1970s, but Sadat's accord with the Israelis led to his assassination. Others suggested Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's most revered president and the charismatic face of the 1952 army-led revolution, but Nasser brutally repressed his opponents, and his policies persuaded foreigners to flee the country.

For some, Egypt's post-Mubarak opening represented a lost opportunity for the Brotherhood, which survived decades of state oppression only to alienate its former allies by quickly running candidates for every powerful office. The Brotherhood, unlike the ANC, had not been founded to promote political rights but to proselytize its vision of Islam as the solution to what it saw as the West's moral and economic corruption and domination over Egypt. In response to the state's long campaign of imprisoning and killing its members, the Brotherhood adopted suspicion and secrecy as its shield.

When Morsi was elected president in 2012, beating Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister, he received 51.7 percent of the vote. But instead of leading with caution and empathy, his administration used an extrajudicial decree to push through a controversial constitution drafted primarily by Islamists.

"Mohamed Morsi could have been Mandela after he escaped prison. But he refused the extended hand of his opponent, chased him with prosecutions and ignored the 50 percent who didn't vote for him," argued Ahmad Sarhan, Shafiq's campaign manager. "His political legitimacy kept diminishing because he refused to be a president for all Egyptians."

Rather than concentrate on improving the bloated, corrupt economy that Mubarak's regime had left behind, Sarhan said, the Brotherhood and other politicians "built their legitimacy on igniting more hatred toward that regime and presenting themselves as the victims to be instated as lawful heirs of the throne."

The Brotherhood often laid blame on others — Mubarak sympathizers and Shafiq supporters — for lingering post-uprising problems, but at the time, the many activists who reluctantly voted for Morsi over Shafiq were convinced that Shafiq would have been worse, the very symbol of the despised old regime and a man who had pledged to put down Tahrir Square protests if elected. Once voted into office, Morsi had little help. Opposite him were bureaucrats and security officers left mostly unaffected by the uprising who sought to undermine the newly empowered Islamists at every turn.

But unlike Mandela, Morsi evinced little serious consideration for the needs and motivations of his skeptics. His administration lashed out at journalists critical of his policies and responded apathetically to violence against the Christian minority. Unlike the ANC, which for most of its modern history had a substantial number of white members, the Brotherhood's listen-and-obey culture and founding principles as a conservative Islamic movement never allowed for a diverse group of supporters.

Morsi never offered a prominent gesture of reconciliation to those fearful of the Brotherhood's rule, as Mandela had when he wore the jersey of the Springboks rugby team, a totemic icon of white Afrikaner cultural identity. Morsi pointedly remained absent from the enthronement of Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II in November 2012 and failed to fulfill a campaign promise to appoint a Christian and a woman as vice presidents.

"(The Brotherhood's) ideology prevents them from ever encapsulating universal rights in the way Mandela did," said Hafsa Halawa, a former employee of the National Democratic Institute who was prosecuted, along with dozens of others, by the military regime that preceded Morsi. The activists who fought for the uprising in 2011 and then opposed both the military and Morsi "never had a leader to gather all (their) voices into a coherent message."

No grass roots

The Arab world's long history of autocratic rule has made it difficult for grass-roots movements to thrive. Nasser allowed virtually no political competition. In neighboring Libya, where Gaddafi turned the country's government into an extension of his personality cult, the environment was arguably harsher.

For a leader to break through Gaddafi's "40 years of mistrust" will take time, said Abu Shagour. "Those organizations that opposed Gaddafi were mostly outside the country. So now a lot of these parties, they are mostly elitist. They are not populist. They don't get the support from the people themselves."

Without popular support of the kind Mandela enjoyed, he added, it would be difficult for a politician to bridge the "culture of duality" between "revolutionaries and nonrevolutionaries" that has taken hold since Gaddafi's fall.

"If there is an effort at reconciliation, then they think, 'Oh, we're going to go and give back the country to the former regime members,' and so this is an issue that is really hurting this effort at reconciliation," Abu Shagour said.

With politics and economies stagnating in many post-uprising Arab nations, reactionary forces have begun to prove attractive. In Egypt, prominent politicians and journalists have urged Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the army chief who ousted Morsi, to run for president, and many long for the stability of the Mubarak years. Rather than hope for a Mandela, many may prefer that one never need come and that life can return to how it was.

Alia Malek contributed reporting.

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