Who calls shots at Egypt's presidential palace, analysts ask

Dina Ezzat , Friday 9 Nov 2012

Recent policy U-turns suggest that govt decision-making has yet to be coordinated between presidency, state and Egypt's formidable Muslim Brotherhood

Mohammed Morsi
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi (Photo: AP)

This weekend, Egyptians will enjoy their late-evening-into-dawn outings as usual, as cafes, restaurants and shops have appeared to have escaped a government attempt to impose mandatory 10pm closing times.

Welcomed as it was by restaurant and shop-owners, this week’s about-face by the government on a policy to force businesses to close early in order to save electricity raises questions about decision-making and coordination within the executive.

Ultimately, the state had to meet traders half-way; a plan to force all shops and restaurants across the nation to close by 10pm, was essentially annulled and a new schedule was offered, with the reluctant consent of the trade community.

On Tuesday, the daily newspapers carried a schedule specifying the hours of closing for the shops and workshops which bypassed the previously announced 10pm curfew in place of closing hours from 9pm to 2am, depending on the function of the business and its venue.

A source in the office of the prime minister told Ahram Online that the schedule was offered to the dailies upon an agreement with the presidency. "We fixed it and sent it for revision and approval."

The source declined to qualify the new schedule as a retreat on the part of the government from its previous decision.

"The point is that when the 10pm closing scheme was offered, there were some valid concerns which were shared, and we had to accommodate those. However, we are still on track with the main element of the scheme to reduce the working hours of shops and evening cafes, to reduce electricity consumption, because the country is really running short when it comes to electricity," he said.

This is not the first reworked or cancelled decision on the part of the presidency. During the past few weeks the government, and at times the presidency specifically, went back on several announced decisions – often offering unwieldy accounts to justify apparent U-turns.

"Let us admit it; this is a new presidency that does not have much support from the state bureaucracy, and which is trying to find its way to make sound decisions; ultimately we make mistakes at times, but at least we have to be credited for not being stubborn," said a presidential source who declined to be named.

According to this source, the election of Mohamed Morsi, who hails from Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, to the presidency was "not welcomed by many in the state bureaucracy who had wanted" presidential runner-up Ahmed Shafiq to win.

"During the early days we had a very hard time; things are improving but we are still far away from securing an efficient performance," the same source said.

To compensate for this "lack of sufficient cooperation and honest, sound advice," the same presidential source added, Morsi had been soliciting the advice of other political actors.

Only last week, Morsi spent a considerable part of his week talking with and listening to key political figures, including the three major presidential contenders who exited the race after the first round: Amr Mousa, Hamdeen Sabbahi and Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh. A later meeting was set med ElBaradei. The president also held a round of meetings with a host of political activists of

Meanwhile, the president has been meeting with some of the members of an advisory board that he created eight weeks after he took power on 30 June. He has also met with his assistants, sometimes one-to-one and at other times in group meetings.

According to presidential spokesman Yasser Ali, the objective of the meetings is to examine and consult over a host of pending "domestic political matters."

Mohamed Essmat Seif El-Dawla, member of the presidential advisory board, says that the meetings offer a good chance for the president to listen to alternative views.

Listening to the advice of his vice-president, his four assistants and 18-member advisory board is one thing and acting upon it is another, argues another presidential source however.

Unlike the previous source, who joined the height of the executive bureaucracy upon the arrival of Morsi, this contact has been there for over 20 years. By his account, "Morsi holds the meetings and receives the guests, but ultimately the decision-making is conducted during meetings that are exclusive to his Muslim Brotherhood team."

He added that "even the vice-president, who is an Islamist and who is with the Muslim Brotherhood [but not a member] is not part of the decision-making process, and often there are only three papers on his desk."

And what goes for domestic-affairs management goes for foreign policy. Informed sources tell Ahram Online that key foreign policy decisions are not made in consultation with the foreign ministry – or, for that matter, with the intelligence agencies. Decisions are made, they say, based on consultations with key Muslim Brotherhood figure – and chief of Morsi's presidential staff – Essam El-Haddad.

In the words of one foreign ministry source, El-Hadad "is effectively the shadow – or, rather, the real – foreign minister, while [Foreign Minister] Mohamed Kamel Amr is only a façade for the execution of plans conceptualised by El-Haddad."

In one incident that raised eyebrows in official circles, Morsi, during his participation at a Non-Aligned Movement summit hosted by Tehran this summer, proposed the launch of a four-country committee – bringing together Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – to work on solving the Syria crisis.

Foreign ministry and intelligence sources say that it was later made clear the idea had been formulated in Al-Haddad's office.

The association of Morsi with the organised and firmly hierarchical Muslim Brotherhood has often prompted the apprehension of liberal critics who are concerned that the presidency remain independent from the Islamist organisation.

Some speculate about the role of powerful figure Khairat El-Shater, the original nominee of the Muslim Brotherhood to the presidential race, whose candidacy was ruled unviable due to legal complications.

Presidential sources, old and new, agree that El-Shater has not once visited the office of Morsi in any of the presidential venues. House visits by El-Shater to Morsi are said by some observers to have happened, but are not confirmed.

However, as an ex-Muslim Brotherhood member insisted, "the way things work would not require El-Shater, who is the ultimate decision-maker within the Muslim Brotherhood, to see Morsi directly, especially as Morsi is sensitive to his reputation as the 'back-up option' to El-Shater."

According to the same source, "almost every single member of Morsi’s group of aides at the presidency had worked with El-Shater, at some point."

For Seif El-Dawla, it is hard to assess the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood "or any other body or entity on presidential decision-making in an accurate way." Further, he added,“although one cannot at all say that the advisory body is a real partner to the decision-making process of the president, it is unfair to say that it is only a cosmetic body to conceal a Muslim Brotherhood decision-making process."

"I think the whole decision-making process is new; I think we are all learning how to build an efficient and truly participatory decision-making process," Seif El-Dawla argues.

Meanwhile, Morsi’s spokesman repeatedly insists that "the president is not responsible for statements by anyone other than his spokesman."

This line has developed into an almost automatic reply to press questions over statements made on what would be direct presidential matters by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, ranging from state security to economic conditions.

During the past few weeks the most controversial statements were made by Essam El-Erian, the second man of the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).

El-Erian’s statements included a reference to a presidential security procedure of "recording all incoming and outgoing phone calls." On Monday this week, the presidency officially notified the prosecution that this practice is untrue.

For some commentators it is only expected that the FJP will have a degree of influence over the decisions of the president, given that this is the majority party in the dissolved parliament which was previously headed by none other than Morsi himself.

The issue for commentator Ziyad Bahiddin, however, is not about the forced inclusion or exclusion of any group of people or forces but about "streamlining the process of decision-making" in a way by which the state ultimately acts upon the wish of its people.

The current problems faced by the country, according to Bahiddin, are essentially problems of humble governance. "There is a firm need for clarity this would certainly help a great deal," he told Ahram Online.

Morsi’s critics from several quarters of Egyptian bureaucracy insist that clarity will continue to be missing if Morsi doubts the advice and reports of state bodies.

"He just doubts everything, and he is victim of an illusion that there is a conspiracy to have him removed," said a security official.

The state bureaucracy is not enough in and by itself to provide the president with the proper guidance, and nor are the different advisors.

"There are established mechanisms to help decision-making on the basis of considering alternatives," Bahiddin said. The root of this mechanism lies at the hands of the government not the presidency, and it is the "local councils" who offer the voice of the people.

The date of the next local council elections is still to be decided, and according to the estimation of most political observers, the FJP has a chance of controlling close to 100 per cent of the seats if it so wishes.

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