Challenges facing Egypt's first democratically elected president

Sarah El-Rashidi, Sunday 12 Aug 2012

Experts highlight internal divisions and reduced powers, leaving questions on Mohamed Morsi's capacity to face and overcome Egypt's many problems

Mohamed Morsi
Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi (Photo: Reuters)

Since President Mohamed Morsi’s electoral victory, the primary question preoccupying Egyptians — and outside observers — is whether the new president will be able to deal with the challenges that will confront him. Security and the country's chronic socio-economic problems remain primary concerns, in addition to the decrepit state of the public health and education sectors.

Prior to the announcement of presidential election results in June, Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) issued an addendum to the Constitutional Declaration, limiting the president’s authority. Consequently, experts remain pessimistic about Morsi’s chances of success, some claiming that the new president was set up to fail.

Oxford professor Tariq Ramadan, the grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan El-Banna, expressed this pessimism to a London audience while participating in a panel discussion at the Frontline Club in central London, the renowned establishment for journalism and journalists.

Ramadan voiced concerns about Morsi’s ability, given his limited authority, to reinstate domestic security and promote economic growth. He maintains that an intellectual revolution — not a political one — transpired in Egypt, warning against the "romanticisation" of Egypt's Tahrir Square uprising.

"The elections were more symbolic than anything, since all the power and authority [of the president] were removed by the army," Ramadan stated.

He listed three factors negatively affecting Morsi's authority. First, the critical role of the army in deciding his measure of influence; second, the polarisation of Egyptian society; and third, the ascension of Salafist parties, whose influence, according to Ramadan, should not be underestimated.

"What we are witnessing is not a democracy, but a military coup d’etat," he said. "The military would never allow Morsi to be elected if it was not going to undermine his power."

Ramadan asserted that, without full presidential powers, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP — of which Morsi was until recently the head) would be unable to perform the tasks for which he was elected. 

Conversely, though similarly pessimistic, many liberal and secular groups believe that irrespective of Morsi’s limited power, he would rapidly lose popularity with the people as well as the FJP.

"Ten years ago, the Brotherhood was more cohesive. Now that it is in power, more divisions will come to the forefront due to internal ego issues," author Tarek Osman said at a recent conference at London’s Arab-British Centre.

Osman questions how the Brotherhood can remain intact and how Morsi can remain in touch with his support base.

Renowned Egyptian actor and activist Khalid Abdallah, another panellist at the Frontline Club, also shared the belief that Egypt would, in coming years, see the increased fragmentation of the Brotherhood owing to the latter's inability to unite all forces.

"I see Morsi as a card that will be burnt quite soon. I think it is impossible for Morsi to unite all forces," Abdallah said. "The revolution is still very much underway, since the Brotherhood has continuously made fatal decisions that have changed the shape of the country."

The notion of the Brotherhood's loss of credibility since its parliamentary victory, and Morsi’s subsequent failure, is echoed by many.

"The Brotherhood's loss of credibility among the masses will make it very difficult for Morsi to unite and lead Egypt," Karina Kamal, senior MBC correspondent and member of the Frontline panel, asserted. "In order to gain further support, Morsi will need to increasingly distance himself from the FJP."

The gravity of Egypt's socio-economic challenges lead many experts to believe that Morsi and the FJP are ill-equipped to deal with them in the medium to short term.

"The June constitutional addendum gives the president no power over the budget. Therefore, Morsi and the FJP will inevitably take the blame for losing further support," Osman claimed, noting the current disharmony within the government vis-a-vis Egypt's chronic energy problems.

Kamal also highlighted fears regarding the ability of the new president and FJP to deal with Egypt's vast economic problems.

"The [2012/13] budget passed by the El-Ganzouri government saw increased spending for [public-sector] wages, money which the government doesn't have," she said. "Furthermore, the budget contained no changes in terms of spending on subsidies, which make up 50 per cent of government expenditures."

Kamal went on to identify further economic calamities that Morsi will be expected to confront.

"The Egyptian pound will be devalued," the MBC correspondent affirmed, emphasising that if the political situation becomes more complex, the pound could be devalued by as much as 50 per cent, which could lead to further inflation and the inability to import wheat, Egypt’s largest imported commodity.

"Foreign currency reserves are around $15.5 billion — enough to cover only three months of imports," said Kamal, leading the correspondent to question how Morsi and the FJP would be able to address the calamity, and whether a proposed IMF loan with different terms would be the solution. 

Osman, for his part, remains adamant that Morsi and the FJP will be unable to deal with Egypt's mammoth problems.

"They don't have enough experience to govern a country as complicated as Egypt," he said. "The socio-economic problems of the country will cause Morsi and the FJP to rapidly lose ground."

Another issue frequently expressed by liberal and secular forces concerns the Brotherhood's regional plan, and the notion of establishing an "Islamic caliphate" in the region, otherwise known as the Arab umma. Osman believes that such a long-term goal would lead many to challenge the legitimacy of Morsi and the FJP. "The Brotherhood's project is not nationalistic; it’s a macro-umma project," he said.

Some analysts, nevertheless, remain optimistic about Morsi’s ability to lead the country forward. Maha Azzam, expert in poltical Islam and associate fellow at Chatham House, told Ahram Online that Morsi’s continued popular grassroots support would allow him to make a degree of progress in terms of the country's most pressing problems.

"The majority of civil society wants him to succeed," said Azzam. "The spoilers are the liberals and secularists, not the Islamists."

She went on to assert that anyone who truly believed in democracy must accept the outcome by supporting Morsi and not fighting against him, as further political struggle will simply serve to delay Egypt's ongoing democratic process. "Egyptians need to overcome the anti-Islamist propaganda and listen to what Morsi and the FJP are saying," Azzam stressed.

Although Azzam admits that the socio-economic challenges confronting Morsi and the FJP are enormous, she nevertheless remains confident that their grassroots experience will enable them to tackle such problems head-on, with the support of society. Azzam also pointed to the FJP's calls to put ideology aside in order to confront pressing national challenges.

"It's ironic that the FJP and Morsi have tended to move away from ideological statements, focusing on critical issues; more so than their secular opponents," Azzam told Ahram Online.

Omar Ashour, director of the Middle East Institute at the University of Exeter and visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre, another member of the Frontline panel, also maintained an optimistic view on Morsi’s ability, on the condition that he maintains a coalition encompassing liberals, the military and Salafists. Ashour additionally asserted the necessity to sustain mobilization and capacity in Tahrir, and to increase external pressure on SCAF from the international community to ensure the president’s success.

“Morsi can bring the country together if he follows some specific policies,” assured Ashour.

In a recent paper, Ashour highlighted that the appointments for Morsi’s first Cabinet, which is notably packed with remnants of the old regime, were a strategic move that will aid the objectives of the new president and the FJP. Markedly, only 10 of the 35 ministries went to revolutionary forces. The other portfolios went to old regime figures and technocrats.

However, according to Ashour, “The choice of the 10 ministries was strategically clever, given the Muslim Brotherhood’s coming battles with SCAF.” He added: “All of these ministries represent low-cost, soft power: official institutions that can enhance pro-change forces’ capacity to mobilise, give them religious legitimacy, and remove the threat of judicial repression as they strengthen unofficial networks on the ground."

Amid the recent shift in focus to the issue of security, owing to the deadly attack in Sinai that left 16 Egyptian soldiers dead, optimism in the president's ability is more necessary than ever. “We have an opportunity; we should try to empower Morsi over the army,” said Ashour.

According to Kamal the best way Morsi can embrace this opportunity is to move forward on domestic issues. “Create a committee to look into civilians held under military rule; address security and the rights of the martyrs.” Kamal stated.

She added: “I don’t know if he will have power to reform the police or judiciary, but what Morsi can and must do is to appoint an economic team and formulate an economic policy, since the 'Renaissance' manifesto has little detail in this regard."

“Morsi needs to urgently bring investors back, get the economy moving and create jobs!” Kamal said.

Sceptics remain cautious. According to Ramadan, “A game of chess is being played. We are dealing with external political forces, not Egyptians in a vacuum. The Salafi equation and the Shia and Sunni divide is going to create a huge divide affecting Morsi’s leadership.”

Abdallah is also negative in his outlook on Morsi, while cautiously optimistic overall. “Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are not going to solve Egypt’s problems. Their failure will result in solving them. I would describe the situation as a sea with huge currents that are leading in the right direction,” he said.

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