Person of the Year

Mohamed Morsy's emergence from anonymity has earned him the title of 5772's Person of the Year.

Mohamed Morsy (photo credit: Reuters)
Mohamed Morsy
(photo credit: Reuters)
Our Person of the Year 5772 is not Israeli. Yes, the Jewish state has produced over the past 12 months its usual crop of political, corporate and cultural newsmakers, but none of them can be crowned Person of the Year.
The leading Israeli contender was IDB Holdings chairman Nochi Dankner, who entered 5772 as Israel’s heaviest tycoon and emerged from it hat in hand. Fortunately, this well-born businessman’s tribulations neither reflected nor affected the Israeli economy, which actually performed quite well. If anything, Dankner’s downfall reflected troubles abroad, from investments affected by the US housing crunch to banking deals spoiled by the euro crisis.
Similarly, the adventurism that made Dankner borrow excessively contrasted with most Israeli households’ caution, which is why they faced no version of a subprime crisis. The government, too, while spending too much on this and too little on that, generally kept its books balanced and loomed as an antithesis to Europe’s financial recklessness. And since Dankner’s crisis does not reflect the overall Israeli situation he cannot be our Person of the Year.
WHILE TEL AVIV’S corporate boardrooms at least provided a serious contender, Jerusalem’s political corridors didn’t even produce non-contenders for Person of the Year.
Yes, we had no shortage of political drama.
Tzipi Livni’s springtime departure had the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy; an honest, pragmatic and well-intended woman inflated by advertising executives into a balloon that after a short flight through thunder and lightning she was not built to endure got lost among the clouds, where she vanished.
And if Livni’s story was a tragedy, her usurper’s was a farce.
Who remembers today Shaul Mofaz’s pompous march to the Western Wall and to Herzl’s tomb in order to announce his resolve to do to the prime minister what he had just done to Livni? Six months on, the opposition leader’s removal is a forgotten non-event that shaped nothing and impressed no one, unless one assumes that at the Wall Mofaz sought, and also obtained, permission to lie to the public.
In any event, the man who vowed to remain in the opposition and personally lead street protests against Netanyahu’s economics, but five weeks on joined that same Netanyahu government as deputy prime minister of all positions, and all that only 10 weeks before returning equally erratically to the opposition. That man also cannot be our Person of the Year, even though he presided over 5772’s entire output of political entertainment.
WHILE THE Dankner and Mofaz stories are sad, there were also happy tales in 5772, ones that in other years may well have produced our Person of the Year.
What Israeli did not choke when Noam Gershony, an IAF pilot severely wounded during the Second Lebanon War, burst in tears to the sound of Hatikva while a freshly awarded London Paralympics gold medal adorned his chest? And who of us were not inspired when scientist Dan Shechtman won the Nobel Prize, after having stubbornly stuck to his thesis despite its initial rejection by chemistry’s high priests? Yet the Person of the Year is not a beauty contest, but part of our quest to write history’s first draft by fishing an individual who ignited, or shaped, or personified a pivotal event or a novel trend that will likely last and matter. That is why our previous Persons of the Year were not only good people like Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer but also bad ones like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.
And the reason no Israeli newsmakers can be Person of the Year is that 5772 was an exceptionally non-Israeli year.
IN 5772, our region’s turbulence intensified while Europe, America, Russia and China, beset by economic problems and geopolitical rivalries, abandoned the Middle East to its devices.
The Mideast has come a long way since Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Boazizi – our Person of the Year 5771 – torched himself and the Arab world. Having later seen Hosni Mubarak jailed, Muammar Gaddafi lynched and Bashar Assad set Syria ablaze, all understood that a chapter in Mideast history was drawing to a close. In 5772, we got a better glimpse of the future, as the term “Arab Spring” gradually gave way to “Arab Winter,” and what many mistook for freedom struggles gave way to wars of religion – between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain, between Sunnis and pro-Shi’ite Alawis in Syria, and between Muslims and Christians in Egypt.
But while serially shedding leaders of the past, it took a while for the Middle East to produce a leader who belongs to the future. The Syrian uprising, for instance, remains disjointed and leaderless, Lebanon’s anti-Shi’ites have no match for the charismatic Hassan Nasrallah, and Iraq’s Sunnis remain lost in the shadows of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
In one place, however, a representative of the newly empowered Sunni masses has emerged: Egypt.
The American-schooled engineering professor, Mohamed Morsy, is no good news from the West’s viewpoint, not to mention Israel’s. Having led the Muslim Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc in the years 2000-2005 and founded his hometown’s Committee to Fight the Zionist Project, Morsy is an Islamist resentful of Western civilization, and out to hammer at the Camp David Accords. But like him or not, he is now the next-door neighbor, and not as a tenant, but as a landlord.
Morsy’s apparent determination to restore Cairo’s control over Sinai, like the swiftness and elegance with which he shed defense minister Mohammed Tantawi, underscored his resolve to shape events rather than chase after them.
Surely, the intensity of Egypt’s Islamist transition remains to be seen. Yet with head-scarved women presenters suddenly sprouting on Egyptian TV while the president hails Hamas, demands that Washington apologize for a privately made film, and avoids condemning a mob’s assault on the US embassy – Morsy is already following Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkish script of creeping Islamism, and is possibly dreaming of total Islamist imposition a la Iran, from banking rules to female dress restrictions.
Fortunately or not, life in Egypt is more complex than such fears suggest, and the situation Morsy inherited is entirely different from Turkey’s and Iran’s.
Unlike Khomeini in 1979, who wrested what then were the world’s second largest oil and gas deposits and a population of 35 million (that has since doubled), Morsy now leads more than 80 million people with hardly a drop of oil, while half the country lives off of less than $2 a day. And unlike Turkey, whose 75 million people are nearly fully literate and whose GDP of $1.2 trillion is nearly the size of Canada’s, nearly one in two Egyptians is illiterate and GDP is less than a fifth of Turkey’s and even smaller than Israel’s.
To reinvent Egypt, where only one in 10 people has a bank account, and farming remains economically dominant even while Cairo is the world’s largest wheat importer, Morsy will have to herald a new industrial revolution. That means confronting a bloated public sector whose wages gobble 40 percent of GDP, slashing food and gas subsidies that eat an additional 7%, building vocational schools, hospitals and highways, and sending millions from farms to factories.
Moreover, Khomeini took power violently, Egypt’s Islamists descended on their country together with its democratization. The Muslim Brotherhood is therefore trapped in a democratic dynamic it cannot easily undo, and can no longer indulge in the pleasures of maximum authority and minimum responsibility.
In four years, Morsy will have to hold another election or risk facing the same unhappy masses that unseated Mubarak. They have tasted power, and will never forget the sweetness. Now, to satisfy the people, Morsy must deliver more food, housing, infrastructure and education than Mubarak did, and all this while seeing to it that women return to roam the streets, Christians to worship in their shrines unafraid, and Washington retains its aid.
And while grappling with these challenges, Morsy will also have to restore Egypt’s role as the Arab world’s axis, which means standing up to Iran’s meddling in Sunni realms, assuming of course that he manages first to rid his own trespassed realm, Sinai, of the foreign jihadists who arrived there uninvited.
Just how much of all this he will accomplish remains to be seen, but what can be said safely already now is that when 5772 began, a little known Mohamed Morsy bore not an ounce of all this responsibility, and that as the year ended this entire tonnage was thrust on his shoulders, as suddenly as the nightmare of seven bad years once befell Pharaoh.
That is why Mohamed Morsy is our Person of the Year 5772.The writer is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.