Egypt: A Test For Morsi

by Sachin Gaur

If the jubilant celebrations in Tahrir square following the fall of Hosni Mubarak provided the iconic image of the “Arab spring,” the joyous revelry following the announcement of presidential election results in June recreated the same euphoric scenes at the birthplace of last year’s revolution. Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s leader, was named the first democratically elected president of Egypt, marking the beginning of a new chapter in Egyptian history. Whether this new chapter will be a positive one for Egypt depends on how President Morsi deals with the political challenges ahead.

Morsi becomes president at a time when the Egyptian economy is under severe pressure — high unemployment, low tourism revenues, and a precarious security situation. His ability to bring stability, improve the state of the economy, and improve the lives of the Egyptian masses will be tested. Such tasks would be challenging under normal circumstances. Morsi’s path, however, is further complicated by two tremendous political roadblocks: the power hungry Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and a deeply divided Egyptian populace.

First, while Morsi’s victory allayed fears of unrest, a significant power struggle is ongoing between the Brotherhood and the military. In fact, the SCAF is de facto in charge of the country, and decision-making powers largely lie with the armed council. Soon after the polling ended in the second round, sensing a Brotherhood victory, top generals broadened their powers by releasing an addendum to the constitutional declaration that magnifies their political authority while greatly reducing presidential powers.

Not only that, a couple of days before the addendum, the Supreme Constitutional Court issued an order that dissolved parliament on technical grounds, which was a blow to the Brotherhood. Its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) dominated the parliament and was set to play a major role in the drafting of the new constitution. Not anymore. The SCAF’s recent decree gives it the right to appoint a new constituent assembly as well.

Without meaningful powers, Morsi faces an uphill battle and may prove ineffective in his bid to bring about the structural changes that millions of Egyptians are expecting. While the SCAF retains extensive executive and legislative powers, Morsi will be blamed for the government’s failures. It could well be a deliberate ploy by the SCAF: set Morsi up to fail to discredit the Muslim Brotherhood.

Second, as the presidential election demonstrated, the fault lines dividing Egyptian society are severe. Many Egyptians view the Brotherhood with extreme suspicion and are wary of its “Islamic agenda.” Last year’s revolution was largely led by secular, liberal, middle class youth, who would have preferred a president espousing their cause. Many of them only voted for Morsi to prevent Ahmed Shafiq (a Mubarak holdover) from killing the revolution.

During the campaign the Brotherhood gradually softened its approach to placate anti-Islamist voters and political opponents. It sought to allay fears that minorities would be targeted or that it would implement Sharia. Post victory, Morsi has continued this tone of reconciliation, assuring Egyptians in his inaugural address that the Brotherhood would respect minority rights, engage opposition political forces in governance, and facilitate consensus. He has also resigned from the FJP and indicated the appointment of a woman and a Christian as vice presidents.

In the coming months, the Brotherhood must demonstrate that it will govern in an inclusive way. It remains to be seen whether Morsi will avoid using the election victory as a religious mandate to infuse hard line Islamist thinking into governance. In fact, his biggest challenge will be the Brotherhood supporters that voted for him in the hope that he would enforce Islamic values and principles. During the parliamentary and presidential elections, the Brotherhood broke many promises, raising suspicions amongst its supporters. If Morsi continues to disappoint his hard-line supporters, he may face challenges from within his own constituency.

President Morsi has to wrest power from the SCAF, appease liberal Egyptians and the international community, all the while trying to placate his prime constituency. These stakeholders have contradictory interests and visions for what Egypt ought to look like.  Many have argued that so far the Brotherhood has simply customized its message to suit different audiences. As it starts to govern and make policy decisions it will no longer be able to hide behind rhetoric to please all comers.

February 11, 2011, the day Hosni Mubarak stepped down, seemed to usher in a new era of hope and prosperity for Egypt. One year on, momentous elections didn’t bring in a western-style democracy nor did they create an Islamic state. Egypt’s political transition is far from complete. The road ahead, full of challenges, will require a tough balancing act from the leader of Egypt’s nascent democracy.

About the Author

Sachin Gaur is a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy candidate at The Fletcher School, where he studies International Political Economy. He currently lives in Cairo, Egypt, and is interning with the UNHCR Regional Office.

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