When grotesque, anti-Semitic remarks made by President Mohamed Morsi in September of 2010 were widely published earlier this week, they were met with appropriate outrage by the Western world. Calling Zionists the “descendants of apes and pigs” is completely unacceptable coming from anyone, let alone the president of a country, despite Morsi’s attempts to explain that his remarks were taken out of context. Much as the outrage over the horrifying statements was to be expected, so too was Morsi’s political backpedalling. He is now tasked with trying to maintain his carefully constructed image as a moderate and broker of peace in the eyes of the West, while still staying true to the beliefs that helped him ascend to a leadership position within the Muslim Brotherhood in the first place. Among these beliefs is the idea that Israel and the U.S. are enemies of the Arab world.
Morsi’s predicament is comparable to that of many politicians during the course of their careers. In order to rise to power, politicians often take strong, passionate positions on controversial issues to ensure the dedicated support of their political base. For Morsi, this base is the Brotherhood. And in his rise to power within the organization, Morsi said what supporters wanted to hear: that Israel must be defeated and driven from Palestinian lands. Once Morsi became a national figure and a presidential candidate in early 2012, he needed to portray himself as a moderate to get elected and to be accepted by the global community, especially the U.S., which has given Egypt billions of dollars in financial aid for many years now. So, Morsi did just that. He became a moderate, at least in rhetoric; he was duly elected; and he even became a major player in the recent cease-fire agreement between Israel and Palestine.
As far as politicking goes, it seemed, for a while at least, that Morsi was playing his cards just right. The West got the assurances it needed from Morsi that Egypt would not fall into a state of chaos at the hands of Islamic extremists. However, Morsi’s allegiance to extreme Brotherhood views surfaced during the constitutional controversy in the final weeks of 2012. At Morsi’s insistence, Islamists in the Egyptian Parliament hastily drafted and pushed through a constitution that largely follows sharia law. All liberal and Coptic members of Parliament withdrew from the vote in protest, and though it was ratified by a national vote, the turnout was less than thirty-three percent of eligible voters. Many protested against the referendum, including leaders of Egypt’s opposition, Mohamed El Baradei and former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi, as well as the Coptic community. These protesters have made numerous claims of voter fraud, but Morsi’s administration has declined to investigate any of them.
Morsi was just beginning to surface from this major political strife with the opposition when his remarks from 2010 were published worldwide, once again suggesting that he is far more extreme in his beliefs than he had led the world to believe prior to this week. Perhaps Morsi is just a politician, saying what he needs to say at the right time to the right people. Unfortunately, given politicians’ propensity to twist words rather than be honest, should we really be that surprised that Morsi has claimed to have moderated his views from 2010 to now? Yet, I think it is very important that the world realize what exactly Morsi is being dishonest about. Was he lying when he said that Israelis are “apes and pigs” in order to climb the leadership ladder in the Brotherhood, or was he lying when he told the world that he wants peace with Israel? I am inclined to believe that Morsi’s 2010 remarks are just a sample of his real colors. His utter lack of respect for the non-Islamist members of Parliament and opposition from the time he took office on June 30th, 2012 has only served to strengthen that opinion. Like most politicians trapped by their own words, Morsi is trying to qualify his statements. He is trying to get the world to believe that wanting the defeat of Israel is not contradictory to wanting peace with Israel. If people are being honest with themselves, they should realize that these two statements are entirely contradictory. And yet, I fear that the leaders of the West are at risk of falling for the ridiculous notion that they aren’t.
Right now, U.S. leadership is outraged; but soon enough, more pressing concerns will arise, and Morsi’s statements will pass from the limelight. Morsi will have gotten away with this gross lack of respect toward Israel, just as he got away with his lack of respect for non-Islamists in his own country to pass the new constitution. If his statements do pass with few long-term political consequences for Morsi, then I will say one thing in his favor: he is a far better politician than I initially thought he would be.