The Latin phrase memento mori means, roughly speaking, “Remember that you too shall die,” a salutary warning to those whose hubris has become unbearable. Given Morsi’s name, it is an irresistible temptation to suggest his epitaph should be ‘memento Morsi’; and it is telling that, as I write this, three days after his overthrow, he is already all but forgotten.
There is cause for concern as well as for celebration in his overthrow. But it is something that other would-be dictators should remember. Egypt’s recently deposed President is an Ozymandias-like figure, whose fall almost exactly a year after his election is a bellwether for the entire Muslim world. The former engineering professor fell to both popular protest (some 14 million of his countrymen apparently turned out to berate him) and a bloodless military coup.
The cause for concern is multifold. One is that it took only three days of loud protests in Tahrir Square for Morsi to fall, compared to the weeks that it took to overthrow Hosni Mubarak’s decades-old military regime. This means the intensity and facility of protests is increasing. The second is that the Muslim Brotherhood may well be tempted to try violent retribution. The third is that there might be other agendas in play – the Americans, the Saudis, and the UAE are all known to be hostile to the Brotherhood.
More worryingly, there is a precedent being set here — as goes Egypt, so does the rest of the Muslim world. It is likely that generals in Turkey and in Pakistan are watching the proceedings with interest. None of them is particularly happy to see difficult civilians in control, especially in the case of Turkey, where Recep Erdogan is putting on airs befitting an Ottoman Emperor.
Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan is currently going through his honeymoon phase, but the generals must be a little concerned that their former comrade, Pervez Musharraf, is now under house arrest for treason, which could lead to a life sentence or even execution. Would-be coup leaders, not to mention Ashfaq Kayani, the Arny chief, must be more than a little concerned.
Why the celebration, then? First, it is because of what Morsi attempted to do. On the one hand, he eviscerated independent institutions, including the courts, the civil services, and the media. On the other hand, he has presided over a struggling economy, and has been unable to arrest inflation, especially in food prices. Finally, it is heartening to note that the Islamist agenda that he explicitly espoused does not appeal to a large number of Egyptians.
There is also schadenfreude: I remember how India’s depressingly ignorant media went gaga over Tahrir Square and the Arab Spring. They were ecstatic about how the ‘evil’ Mubarak was being done in by ‘secular, guitar-playing, Twitter-friendly’ young people (say, what happened go Google’s Wael Ghonim, who became famous at the time?). Wrong on most counts, as was pointed out by the more sensible at the time. The chances were always that the Mubarak dictatorship was going to be replaced by a worse Islamist dictatorship, and that it would have short honeymoon. How short it was is the only surprise.
It is not only Egyptians who should learn some lessons from Mohammed Morsi’s sad saga. Any others who are subverting freedoms and institutions should beware. There is a time of reckoning, and those sins will come back to haunt them sooner or later. Especially in a situation where inflation is running high. The hungry are more prone to revolution. Just ask the Bourbons; or to take a more recent example, any of the deposed Arab tyrants.
The Economist magazine noted recently in “The march of protest” that this appears to be the season of protests around the world, comparing it to the waves of student revolts in 1968 or to the overthrow of the Soviet Empire in 1989. They noted the appearance of the Guy Fawkes mask – the trademark of the group Anonymous – as the uniform of young protesters in many parts of the people.
Although there are many reasons that drive people to the streets – bus fares in Brazil, the razing of a park in Turkey, the removal of fuel subsidies in Indonesia – they boil down to two problems: Government incompetence and corruption, leading to horrendous suffering by citizens. In particular, food prices were the proximate cause for most of the Arab Spring protests.
This should worry India’s smug rulers as well, while they play political games, Marie Antoinette-style. The protests over the yet-unnamed Delhi paramedical student’s brutal rape and murder (and the fact that the worst perpetrator may well get away scot-free), the uprisings over corruption led by Anna Hazare and Swami Ramdev, as well as the general dissatisfaction over galloping food prices (onions at Rs 100, anybody?), are all signals that all is not well. Their time can also pass. Memento mori.