“And on the pedestal these words appear: My name is Ozymandias, king of kings. Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair.”
Though Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote these words in 1818 to commemorate the unveiling of Pharaoh Ramses II’s statue in the British Museum, replacing Ozymandias with Mohammed Morsi would be a fitting change. Since he gave himself “almost absolute power” last week, Morsi, whose support proved instrumental in pausing the most recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has been painted by his opponents as a new pharoah.
Obviously, Egypt’s first democratically elected president would have to do something pretty bold to earn that title. Something bold, like declaring his office immune from judicial review and suspending freedom of speech for magazines that attack him. Remember, this guy was elected to replace Hosni Mubarak, who’s currently serving life in prison for war crimes against his own people. Replacing one dictator with another is not something the Egyptian electorate – or Morsi’s backers here in the states – had in mind.
Indeed, a sizable chunk of Egypt’s population has been suspicious of Morsi from his first day in office. In the last election, some 48% of Egyptians voted for Gen. Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s former prime minister, in an attempt to block him from office. When 48% of people would rather have their dictator’s right-hand man as president instead of you, you know you’re not trusted.
Let’s return to Shelley’s poem. The mighty despair? Well, despair isn’t a far cry from the America’s official take on the new Egyptian balance of power. While outwardly appealing for calm, the United States is very wary of another dictatorship in Egypt – especially a non-secular one. While Mubarak at least towed a hard line against Jihadists in pre-revolutionary Egypt, Morsi jumped onboard with Hamas earlier this month by sending Prime Minister Hesham Qandil to the Gaza Strip as a sign of solidarity. While Egypt eventually brokered a ceasefire, it’s pretty obvious which side Morsi prefers.
Morsi’s also proposed changes to several Israeli peace agreements – changes likely to further destabilized the region. By contrast, Mubarak stuck to an unmodified version of the Camp David Accords, adopted in 1978, that largely kept Israeli-Egyptian tensions to a minimum.
Mubarak clearly had to go – that’s the case whenever a dictator cracks down with brutal force against pro-democracy protesters. But Morsi’s geopolitical stance has led to some unsettling new forgiven policy developments, and his power-grab at home only adds to the West’s queasiness. It remains to be seen how many US objectives (like a lasting Israeli peace) Morsi will challenge in the Middle East, but one thing’s for sure – it’s easier dealing with the devil we know than the pharaoh we don’t.