On 3rd July 2013, President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt was overthrown and arrested by the army, after only a year in the post. The reasons given for the coup d’état were ranged from economic floundering to Morsi, a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood, trying to Islamize Egypt. But it seems that the real reasons for Morsi’s demise were his lack of a proper power base. Mediaeval historians have seen this sort of fall before. Richard III kept his throne for only two years before being overthrown by, in essence, a military coup. Had Morsi known about Richard, he might have acted differently.
In 1483, Edward IV died. He was a charismatic and popular king who had done much to heal the wounds of the civil war which saw him take the throne from his cousin Henry VI. There were still rumblings of strife, and he had a few shaky years in the middle of his reign. Edward had two sons, and English political society looked forward to a period of stability. However, Edward’s death was too soon: he was 40 and his sons were only 12 and 9. A minor on the throne was not necessarily a problem (arguably Henry VI’s most stable years were during his regency) but it was a potential power vacuum. Richard, Duke of Gloucester was named Lord Protector – neither unexpected nor unreasonable, for Richard was the new king’s uncle and had been as Edward IV’s deputy in the North. As Lord President of the Council of the North, Richard had shown ability and reliability, and he had a strong following there. The king’s court, and thus his government, was centred in London, but there was no reason that Richard’s authority should have weakened the further south he came. His surprising actions on his way, however, showed that he, at least, did not feel himself in control. Determined not to be undermined by the king’s maternal family, Richard had the boy’s uncle, Anthony, Earl Rivers, arrested and executed. This was Richard’s first slide down a slippery slope: Richard needed to get the political community behind him, but, with hindsight, this was not the way to do it. It takes courage and a great deal of psychological savvy to be magnanimous; Richard might have had the former, but he did not have the latter. Why Richard felt it necessary to declard Edward’s sons bastards and to accede to the throne himself is unclear, but, having done so, he was now playing a defensive game with the political community. He started to rely on those whom he could trust completely, which meant that he did not use and reward those whose support he needed to win, and very quickly, in the autumn of 1483, he faced rebellion, led by his erstwhile ally the Duke of Buckingham.
Mohammed Morsi was elected President on June 30th, 2012, after a popular uprising overthrew the dictator Hosni Mubarak. The actual overthrowing was done by the army: Egypt’s army is its most powerful institution, and, despite being an army acting above the law, still has the faith of many Egyptians. The army, and the police, had been the backbone of Mubarak’s reign, and the army saw his downfall: the army was the arbiter of power. For any incoming president, the army and the police were going to be political priorities. Morsi was a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood. This organisation was quite popular, but periodically outlawed, and by no means universally supported: for all their talk of moderation, many Egyptians fear the imposition of restrictive Islamic rule. Neverless, Morsi did get 51% of the vote – 15% more than the Conservatives got in our last general election – plenty enough to claim the popular mandate. Just as Richard of Gloucester had somehow to overcome potential opposition of various southern magnates, Morsi had to win the support of the army and police. Ironically, he perhaps should have taken a leaf from Richard’s book, and arrested army and police leaders immediately, while still riding on the crest of the electoral wave. But he did not, perhaps assuming their good will – as Richard assumed the good will of, for example, the Duke of Buckingham. Morsi did realise that he needed to purge the army, but his sacking of the two top brass, Mohammed Tantawi and Sami Anan, was too little, too late. By the autumn of 2012, Morsi’s political community was as unstable as it had been before he was elected, and neither the army nor the police bore him good will. His knowledge of this was behind his desperation to see the new constitution finished, but instead of trusting people and time to get on with this, he gave himself powers which would have suited a dictator. In order to quell the ensuing unrest, he had to rely on the army, the police, and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Richard’s controversial seizure of power increased his defensiveness, and he relied more and more on his previous, northern, power base – including the ‘Cat, the Rat and Lovell, our Dog’ (Richard Ratcliffe, William Catesby and Lord Lovell). Similarly, Morsi relied on his Muslim Brotherhood allies. Richard failed either to woo his enemies or to force them into silence. Henry Tudor, the next best claimant to the throne, danced out of reach in Brittany, and Richard was unable to stop communications between him and political figures closer to home. Henry’s support grew, and by August 1485 he felt strong enough to challenge Richard. Tellingly, Richard lost the Battle of Bosworth Field because of the defection of several key players, Thomas and William Stanley and the Duke of Northumberland. These three were northerners, but outside Richard’s affinity (his network of supporters and servants), and they had felt increasingly alienated by the king. He, typically, had not foreseen trouble, and had done nothing to lessen their power. Richard was reasonably successful king, for government under him functioned quite well and was improving. In fact, Henry VII’s first years were a bit of a disaster compared with the slickness of the Yorkist governmental machine. But Richard had neither the ruthlessness nor the charm and charisma needed to keep him in power. He was not his tall, handsome, winsome, exuberant brother Edward; he was not capable of awe-inspiring magnanimity, and his increasingly despotic behaviour was reactive, not proactive – thus allowing critics to foment opposition. Richard’s downfall was a result of bad PR, not bad kingship. This seems to be the case with Morsi, too. Egypt’s economy is in a woeful state, and there is the inevitable instability of a post-dictatorial nation, intensified by the tempests churning up her Middle Eastern neighbours.
In reality, Morsi was not doing too badly, but it did not seem so. He failed to check the police and army, and yet also failed to woo them. Their corruption carried on, disillusioning many ordinary Egyptians. He failed to protect religious minorities, spreading fear that the ship of state was about to hit the tip of an Islamic iceberg and sink into the sea of extremism. But most of all, he failed to be anything more than a suit and a beard. He was never charismatic enough to inspire confidence in his leadership. Like Richard III, Morsi is one of history’s also-rans.