President Mohamed Morsi is planning a limited European tour late this month to France, once a strong ally of Egypt under ousted former president Hosni Mubarak, and to Germany.
The trip, according to presidential sources, has political and economic objectives. On the economic front, Morsi is hoping to prompt some enthusiasm in Paris and Berlin to direct more investment soon to Egypt, according to one source. Morsi is hoping also that these two large European countries can be reassured that Egypt is a safe and convenient destination for their respective tourists.
“The president will make it crystal clear that all the rumours suggesting any form of hostility towards Western tourists or their habits and preferences are totally unfounded and that Egypt is as ready as ever to receive European tourists,” said one source. He added: “Generally speaking, tourists to Egypt — as to any other country — are sensitive to the social norms of their destinations and this needs no reminder, but we are not denying foreign visitors the right to go to the beaches or to eat or drink whatever they wish, as some have been claiming to deter tourists from visiting Egypt, and thus to negatively influence the economy.”
Such reassurances, aides hope, will not only help in promoting French and German tourism and investment in Egypt but will also help reverse the image of President Morsi and of the Muslim Brotherhood as reactionary Islamists who are taking Egypt backward.
The same presidential sources say they are well aware of the "rumour mills" operating in Europe, especially in the European Parliament, “giving a false portrait of President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.”
The sources add that they anticipate questions to be put to Morsi on the visit over the status of Copts and women, especially with view to the new constitution that has been labeled islamist by non-Islamist political forces in the country.
The president, sources say, will assert his “commitment to do justice to all Egyptians” irrespective of their gender or faith and would “promise” that “more steps” would be taken to include “more” women and Copts in top state management positions “on merit and on need.”
According to one source, Morsi would go as far as “assuring” that a legislative committee would work on certain articles of the constitution, adopted last month, which sparked concern amongst the political opposition.
In his pursuit of lifting his image and that of the Muslim Brotherhood during this limited European tour, Morsi will announce that Egypt will accept some foreign observers for the next parliamentary elections, according to one aide. However, as the same aide stated, the president would stop short of accepting a fully-fledged monitoring mission from the European Union. “This was rejected by the [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] during the presidential elections because it was seen as an infringement on national sovereignty,” he said.
The administration and results of the next parliamentary elections, expected in the spring, is perceived to be one of the key image lifting tasks for the Muslim Brotherhood, on both the home and foreign fronts.
On the home front, the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), is getting worried about the unmistakable decline in their approval rates, along with other Islamists, and the impact this might have on their prospects of maintaining a strong majority share of seats in parliament.
FJP-Brotherhood sources say they are "not at all” worried about keeping an overall majority of seats of the coming parliament, allied with other Islamist parties and forces. “It is the kind and level of majority that we keep our eyes on,” said one source.
In the 2011 parliament, which was dissolved in summer 2012 after the law governing its election was found unconstitutional, Islamists had well over 70 per cent of the seats. This week, sources inside and outside the Muslim Brotherhood and larger Islamist quarters say now that majority may be down around the 50 per cent mark.
Islamists complain about as unfortunate a set of recent events, ranging from a series of train crashes to what they qualify as the “inevitable economic crisis,” that has negatively influenced their image. Liberals for their part say that the decline in approval of Islamsits is largely due to their unsatisfactory performance and confused priorities.
“I have never seen worse days than today,” complained Safaa, a civil servant. Speaking on the ladies carriage of the underground on the Helwan to Merg line, Safaa was grumbling to herself after receiving a call from a daughter asking for an urgent payment of private lessons.
According to Safaa, it has become impossible to make ends meet "anymore" as the prices of commodities and services, including vital private lessons, increase.
Almost everyone close expressed vocal support. As Safaa continued complaining, one lady after another shared their account of the expanding economic difficulties. The consensus was that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood should be blamed.
“They are not up to it"; “They cannot rule”; “Egypt is too big for them,” were some of the remarks made.
It is precisely this “unfair portrayal of President Morsi, the party (the FJP) and the Gamaa (the Brotherhood)” that is being targeted, according to one Brotherhood source, by a core group operating under the close guidance of Khairat El-Shater, one of the group's strongest leaders.
This source said that a group of “honest and decent” journalists and TV commentator has been asked to “explain the truth to the public.” In parallel, the government of the Hisham Kandil — assessed by observers as one of the most unpopular governments in the recent decades — has been asked to better communicate with the public, with many ministers now considering drafting spokespersons to reach out to the public.
Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, according to the sources that spoke to Ahram Online, has asked all members to be careful of what they write on social media sites to avoid making controversial statements that could lead to further damage being done to the image of the Brotherhood ahead of elections.
There is also an appear to local mosque clergy to “explain” to mosque goers the need to support the Muslim Brotherhood.
“And in all cases we have our strong base of support and our wide charity outreach that the people have known for years,” said an FJP source at Alexandria, one of the bigger and most challenging governorates for the Muslim Brotherhood in the coming elections.
The objective is to ensure that the opposition does not take over one third of the seats of parliament.
In the December referendum on the controversial constitution, political opposition to the Islamist-leaning charter managed to garner close to 37 per cent in a 'No' vote against the proposed draft — a percentage that opposition figures say could have been higher had it not been for the direct intervention of the Brotherhood, the government and municipal bodies.
It is the belief within the Muslim Brotherhood that once parliamentary elections are over, political stability will return, and hence the economy would pick up.
For foreign diplomats in Egypt who have been, according to some, subject to intensive Muslim Brotherhood PR operations, things are not so black and white.
“We are sure that ultimately the Islamsits will have the majority in the next parliament, even if not as big a majority as they had last time. We are also sure that the presidency of Morsi is set to continue, short of major unforeseen and dramatic political developments. But we are also and equally sure that Morsi is a fragile president and the Muslim Brotherhood are much less popular than before. In fact, much less popular than we had expected them to be by this point of time,” said a foreign diplomat of a leading country this week in Cairo.
Equally sanguine are some leading members of the business community who openly say they “fear” for the future.
“The issue is not one of images, as the Muslim Brotherhood and the president seem to think. The issue is that Egypt is reaching a point of being ungovernable and this is not just due to the acute economic conditions, which are bound to get worse in a few months, but also due to the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood don’t have the know-how of running the state bureaucracy and are in fact disintegrating the one that is in place as they try to introduce their men everywhere,” said one prominent businessman.
He added: “If you want to talk about image, I would tell you that it is not a pretty image at all that we have now; and it will get uglier in a few months — uglier beyond the capacity of makeup or plastic surgery to conceal.”