Egypt's New Discourse

While the future of freedom under the new Muslim Brotherhood regime in Cairo remains unclear, all sorts of new voices and opinions are being heard these days.

"I suggest that anyone who is planning to take to the street on August 24 leave a farewell letter at home, because we are going to take care of him." These words, which could be interpreted as incitement to murder, were written last week by none other than Ahmed Mohammed Morsi, son of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, on his Facebook page. The younger Morsi's threats are directed at the organizers of and participants in a demonstration expected to take place this coming Friday, against the Muslim Brotherhood government and against Morsi personally.

Ahmed Morsi's provocative post did not, however, stir up a storm like the one stirred up by Sheikh Hashem Islam, a member of Egypt's Al-Azhar Fatwa Committee, who said similar things at an appearance at the Diplomatic Club in Cairo. The cleric "proved," by means of verses from the Koran, that anyone who opposes the elected government is like a rebel and a heretic, and can thus be killed. Therefore anyone who participates in the demonstration on Friday will do so under the threat of a death sentence.

These remarks, which have shaken up the public and political arena in Egypt, overshadowed the younger Morsi's post. But the Egyptian public's account with President Morsi - via his son - is still to be reckoned. The meddling of Morsi's son in matters of state is angering not only President Morsi's opponents; his supporters, too, are suggesting that he "educate his son."

On Friday, the important journalist Wael Kandil of the al-Shorouk newspaper wrote an article suggesting that Morsi learn a lesson from the affair of President Hosni Mubarak and his sons, who began their careers with media coverage of their sports prowess and ended it in the conquest of "the political and economic playing field."

"No one," wrote Kandil, "suspects the president's son of wanting to imitate Mubarak's son and no one thinks Morsi is a new pharaoh, but it is impossible to prevent the collective imagination from making comparisons, and I am saying this for the benefit of the president and for the benefit of Egypt."

Others, anonymously of course, are prepared to be more blunt: "Morsi the son is already rushing to succeed the president. He has not learned a lesson from what happened to Gamal Mubarak, who lost everything," an Egyptian politician was quoted as having said in the newspaper al-Youm al Sab'a.

Ahmed Morsi's meddling in Egyptian politics also began to annoy the Muslim Brotherhood, when in the middle of July he wrote a post addressed directly to his father demanding to know "when, Mr. President, will you be so kind as to announce the establishment of the government? We, the citizens of Egypt, will be glad to know who its ministers are."

In other posts on his Facebook page, Ahmed Morsi has expressed his opinion of "Assad the murderer" and asked Allah to "destroy him as soon as possible." As the anger at Ahmed increased, the Egyptian media began publishing reports on the behavior of members of the president's family. It was reported that Ahmed's younger brothers had begun learning horseback riding at the presidential stables "with the same horses Gamal and Alaa Mubarak used to learn to ride," and that Mohammed Morsi took his sons to Saudi Arabia on the presidential plane. It was also published that the president's wife is "beginning to make changes in the decoration of the presidential palace and has ordered the construction of a covered swimming pool."

Not many people have leapt to the family's defense. Once again it was Ahmed Morsi who reacted, claiming that the president had paid for the flight and that the family members were not allowed to use the highest-level VIP lounge at the airport. Moreover, added the son, "It is my right to express my opinion like any Egyptian citizen."

These exchanges of blows, via Facebook on the son's part, and via print journalism - including even the government press - on the part of Morsi's opponents, are making it clear that changes are abound in Egypt. A public discourse that allows for criticism is a phenomenon Egypt has not known for decades, especially the ability to criticize the government, the bureaucracy, and even the president and his family. It's not absolute, of course: a legal suit has been filed against the programming director at the al-Faraeen TV station, Tawfiq Okasha, who is accused of incitement to assassinate the president. And copies of the newspaper al-Destour have been recalled on the grounds that the paper insulted the president.

Still, in this new discourse space, author Alaa al-Aswany, who wrote the best-selling novel "The Yacoubian Building," is able to walk out of a meeting with President Morsi, who had invited a group of intellectuals for a discussion, and declare that he had told the president: "We are glad we are rid of the army's rule, but we are worried by the Brotherhood regime. Though you are an elected president, you belong to an illegal movement that is funded by unknown sources." Al-Aswany also said that he had demanded that the president place the Muslim Brotherhood under the supervision of the state comptroller and "made it clear to him that were it not for the young people of the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood would not be in power."

Statements such as this were rarely heard in Mubarak's day, and entailed a risk of arrest and even imprisonment. Only special people, like writer Sonallah Ibrahim - a liberal leftist who refused to accept the state prize for literature from the Mubarak regime because of its relations with the United States and Israel - were not harmed.

It is still early to predict how the future of the Egyptian discourse will look. Anwar Sadat also held meetings with intellectuals who criticized him but a short time before he was assassinated he imprisoned many of them. Morsi, for the nonce, has only appointed new editors at the government press.