Mohammed Morsi: Attacks On Art and Civil Society Show Where Islamists' True Hearts Lie

This article was co-written with Darby Arakelian.

There had never been a scene like it as the curtains opened at the Cairo Opera House. A packed house had come to see a performance of Aida. Instead, they were greeted by workers and artists crowded onstage. They bore signs denouncing Egypt’s new Islamist minister, Ala Abd-al-Aziz, who had just fired the head of the opera house, Dr. Indes Abdel-Dayem. The artistic director and principal conductor announced that the performance would be cancelled in a show of unity against Abd-al-Aziz’s blatant attempt “to change the identity of the country.”

Wresting control over the opera was no isolated act. Abd-al-Aziz had wasted no time after his appointment in also firing the heads of the Egyptian Book Authority and the Academy of the Arts. The sad truth is that Islamic extremists, who rule Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, fear cultural expression that may challenge their own intolerant doctrines. As one Egyptian noted, the art of story-telling through paintings, opera, and books is at risk.

Morsi crony Gamal Hamed, a Salafist Nour Party MP, spelled out bluntly how Islamists judge the arts: “Ballet is the art of nudity, spreading immorality and obscenity among people.” He called for banning ballet as “prohibited in Islam."

Clamping down on artists is only one front as Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood cohorts fight to seize control. A few months ago, Morsi moved to undercut impartial law enforcement by arbitrarily – and, an Egyptian Appeals Court held, illegally – firing chief prosecutor Abdel-Maguid Mahmoud and filing the post with an Islamist hack, Talaat Abdullah.

Abdullah gained immediate notoriety by issuing an arrest warrant to detain satirist Baseem Youssef. Only outcries at home and abroad forced the regime to back down on that one. But Morsi has defied the court order to get rid of Abdullah. Judicial decisions merit respect within the Muslim Brotherhood only when they support the MB position.

Then Morsi allies in Egypt’s Shura Council, the upper house of Parliament, tabled a proposal to rid the judiciary of 25% of its judges by reducing the retirement age from 70 to 60. Seeking younger, more vigorous judges to replace Mubarak-era appointees played no role in this gambit. Islamists control parliament and the presidency.  

Only the judiciary retains its independence. To its credit, the judiciary is asserting itself.  This past weekend, the Supreme Constitutional Council ruled as unconstitutional laws passed by the Islamist-controlled Shura Council, as well as the law that created the council itself. The judiciary also removed Morsi’s presidential power to arrest, detain, and search.

In the meantime, the April 6 Movement has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Morsi and his Freedom & Justice Party over the death of a youth killed but not formally recognized as a martyr of the revolution. Perhaps it’s no surprise that 7 million courageous Egyptians have signed a petition demanding Morsi’s recall.

But don’t expect Morsi or the Muslim Brotherhood to let up. They’re also targeting NGOs that can shine a light on human rights abuses and Islamist efforts to shut down democracy. Given their way, Morsi bureaucrats, many drawn from the security apparatus, could show up at civil society organizations and order them to stop or curtail activity. They could even dispatch employees on the spot for prosecution. Sound like Tehran after 1979?

The key test for a civil-society organization’s independence, as Heba Morayef, Egypt’s director for Human Rights Watch told the Christian Science Monitor, is whether it can get funds and make decisions without government interference. Morsi and his cronies would control such groups by requiring them to obtain a certificate of registration from Egypt’s Social Solidarity Ministry. The goal is to block funding from international groups providing support for improving the lives of struggling Egyptians. One anti-Morsi leader called the proposal a “death blow” to Egyptian society. Clearly Morsi and his posse want to push out foreigners tied to democracy advocates. The political backlash at home has prompted Morsi to lighten up on his proposals, but it’s clear where the Islamists’ hearts lie. Human Watch has denounced Morsi’s approach as “hostile to the very notion of independent civil society.” Just yesterday, an Egyptian court convicted 43 nonprofit workers, including 16 Americans engaged in pro-democracy activity, of using foreign funds to illegally foster political dissent. It signals how serious Morsi is about cracking down on democracy advocates.

Until Morsi was elected, an interesting debate raged over whether the Muslim Brotherhood was committed to religious tolerance, democratic pluralism, and political policies that built upon its recognized excellence in providing social services. Tragically for Egyptians, and the rest of the world, which has long rightly viewed Egypt as possessing a unique ability to lead the region to a prosperous future, the answer is No. The last person Morsi would admire is Ronald Reagan. But as he and his cohorts keep trying to strong-arm Egypt towards an Islamic Republic, he might do well to heed Reagan’s words: “Regimes planted by bayonets do not take root.”

The opinions expressed are the authors' own and not those of the U.S. government, its departments, agencies, or COCOM.