Mursi Consolidates Power: Is Egypt evolving a new set of policies?
DR. ABDUL RUFF
The very fact that the Islamist Brotherhood leader Mohammed Mursi was elected and entered the Presidency was surprising to many in the first place. Mursi was propelled to power by the Muslim Brotherhood when their original candidate, business tycoon Khairat al-Shater, was disqualified from the presidential race.
By moving very cautiously, already Egyptian President Mursi has successfully completed 3 months undertaking measures to rebuild the civil war ravaged nation and even managed to surprise Egyptians and foreigners on many occasions.
Due to military domination and control, from the outset there were many doubts about whether he would be able to take charge of a country marred by a collapsing economy and a volatile security situation.
The country had, for the 18 months before President Mursi was sworn in, been ruled by Egypt's formidable military. They had a tight grip on power and made sure they continued to do so even after a president was elected. They announced a constitutional declaration just days before the election results. It gave the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) legislative and executive powers including the ability to veto any article in the drafting of the country's constitution.
Last August, Mursi took the nation - and the world - by surprise when he cancelled Scaf's constitutional declaration and transferred full executive and legislative authority from the military council to himself. He also forced the Defence Minister Hussein Tantawi and his second-in-command Sami Enan into retirement. He appointed Gen Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, the former head of military intelligence, and the youngest member of Scaf as defence minister. Mursi then continued his reshuffling of Egypt's top brass when it was announced that 70 other generals in the Egyptian armed forces were to be retired. This was the president's first real assertion of power and many argue his biggest achievement to date.
Mursi, the “accidental President" and "the Spare Wheel" has evolved himself into no-nonsense president and now become a strong assertive leader of Egypt, rather quickly.
This accomplishment, however, was overshadowed by his failure to live up to the pledges he made when he was sworn in. President Mursi gave himself 100 days to tackle some of Egypt's most difficult problems. This ended on Monday, 8 October. Traffic, security, fuel and bread shortages and the ever-present piles of rubbish in Egypt's streets were all high on his agenda.
Mursi has duty before the nation in instilling realistic hopes. The expectations that he would deal with all injustices quickly created an atmosphere of hopes that are very high and unrealistic. Frequent power and water cuts in the last few months, the continuous long queues for bread, and the uncontrollable congestion of traffic in Egypt were frequently highlighted by the media in the run-up to Mr Mursi's 100th day in power. While Egyptians used to experience recurrent fuel shortages across the nation, now shortages are witnessed less frequently and only in localised areas not nationwide.
The president's grip on security was critically tested when 16 border guards in Sinai were killed in an attack on the 5 August. Egyptian security forces have launched a major military offensive killing dozens of Islamic militants. The build-up of troops and heavy weapons caused concern in Israel. It also brought to the surface what little control the government's security apparatus had over its borders with Israel. In addition to battling domestic issues Mursi aimed to make his mark internationally.
Mursi has said he would take active diplomatic role in Mideast. To date he has made nine official foreign visits - the first to Saudi Arabia - while others included China, Belgium, Ethiopia, Turkey, the United States, Italy, and a historic trip to Iran.
But American neocons want Mursi first to prove to the United States and other Western countries that he is an ally worth backing, especially after he failed to tackle the attack on the American embassy in Cairo last month by angry protesters denouncing an anti-Islam film.
Another challenge the president had to face in the past 100 days was the increase in strikes staged by employees in different sectors. Since early July, transport workers, doctors and teachers have all staged industrial actions demanding better pay and working conditions. The government was constantly criticised for failing to handle the strikes and its general handling of Egypt's dwindling economy. A $4.8bn (£3bn) loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which is currently being negotiated caused a great deal of controversy in Egypt. "Instead of forging economic policies in favour of the poor by setting a minimum and maximum wage, forcing progressive taxation and renationalising the country's robbed companies, [Mr Mursi] chose to side with the rich and follow the same path as the old ruling party in depending on loans," Ahmed Imam, a member of the National Front of the Protection of the Revolution, told Al Ahram newspaper.
In his speech marking the 6 October war, Egypt's President gave himself and his government high grades on his handling of some of the nation's pressing problems. "The Mursi Meter", a website tracking the Islamist leader's achievements in his first 100 days in office, offered a different take on Mursi's performance. It said the president's achievements have so far been restricted to implementing penalties for fuel smugglers, raising awareness in speeches and through the media about the importance of proper disposal of trash, increasing the value of flour used to make bread, removing road blocks impeding traffic and implementing a reward system for positive performance of police officers. The speech was criticised and at timed ridiculed on social media, especially Twitter."In Mursi's first 100 days of rule: At least 250 strike organisers have been sacked," Hossam El Hamalawy tweeted. "Parking tickets," tweeted Tamer Badreldin þin response to what has been achieved in the 100 days since Mursi came to power. But others jumped to the president's defence. "They're doing their best, we have to be patient," tweeted Mohammed Soltan, referring to President Mursi and his government.
Despite those challenges recent polls show a positive national attitude towards the president. The latest results of the Egypt Centre for Public Research (Baseera) showed that 79% of Egyptians were satisfied with the president's performance while 13% were not. What the president did not discuss in his speech are key issues like Egypt's constitution which many fear is being drafted by an Islamist dominated body. Other pending issues include freedom of speech, women's participation in politics and the future of Egypt's Copts who feel increasingly threatened by the rising power of Islamists in the country.More than any of his other promises, President Mursi has to keep his word about being a president for all Egyptians.
Egypt's new President, Mohammed Mursi, wants to signal the new direction for his foreign policy with the countries he chooses to visit on his first trips abroad since taking office two months ago. Last week he travelled to Saudi Arabia, a long-time ally of Egypt that was close to his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, seeking to put tensions aside. He is now planning to travel to China - in recognition of its role as an economic superpower - and Iran, according to the official Egyptian state news agency.If the latter trip takes place as expected on 30 August, it will have special significance.
No Egyptian leader has set foot in Tehran since the mid-1970s. Diplomatic relations broke down after Cairo signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 and received the Shah, who fled Iran following the Islamic Revolution in the same year. As the most populous Arab country and a historic regional heavyweight, Egypt, a predominantly Sunni Muslim power, has seen itself as a political rival of Shia Iran. Under Mubarak, it united with other Sunni nations against the spread of Iranian influence. There were strained relations with Iran's proxies, Syria and the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah, as well as Hamas, the Palestinian faction that governs Gaza.
Some analysts have expressed concern over the apparent decision of the new president, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, to reconnect with Iran. They note that Tehran hailed Mursi's election as an "Islamic awakening". "The prospect of Mursi using his position to repair ties with Iran has been hotly debated in the Western and Israeli press since his election victory in June," comments David Hartwell, senior Middle East analyst at IHS Jane's. "Egypt has sided with Saudi Arabia and Jordan to form a bulwark against what they have traditionally perceived to be expansion of Shia Iranian hegemony in the Middle East. As such, any sign that Egypt's commitment to this 'Sunni front' might be weakening will be viewed with alarm."
However, it could be that too much is being read into Mohammed Mursi's decision to attend the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Iran. He has a role to play in the meeting, handing over the rotating leadership of the bloc, which was established during the Cold War as an advocate for developing nations. "Mursi's visit to Iran, if it materialises, would clearly be a symbolically important step, but perhaps not as important as the alarmists suggest," says Elijah Zarwan, an Egypt expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "As the current head of the Non-Aligned Movement, it would be hard for Mursi not to attend and still look serious about the group, which Egypt does take seriously as a magnifier of its diplomatic influence." He suggests that normalisation of relations will take more time. "Even small concrete changes to Egypt's Iran policy will likely come only after intense negotiations, including on Tehran's support for Damascus," Mr Zarwan says. "Mursi would have to carefully weigh any steps toward better relations against resistance from within the Egyptian state, and from Egypt's allies in the Gulf and further afield.
When I met a member of the Foreign Relations Unit from the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing recently, there was a clear intention to tread carefully. "We believe that Iran has very bad practices in international relations whether with the Gulf countries or with the Syrian revolution, and we have a permanent problem with the Shia issue - they're trying to spread this all over the region," the official said. "We're not willing to stress this relationship or fortify it or build new links. We're trying to have normal relations, very slow in pace and very alert because we don't trust their foreign relations at all."
Iran and Hezbollah have seen their reputations tarnished by the bloody 18-month conflict in Syria and their support for President Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite sect, viewed as an offshoot of Shia Islam. "Iran's entry point to the Arab world was through Syria. They're losing that now and I think it's very obvious to everyone that Iran is supporting a barbaric Syrian regime and that has hurt Iran's standing in the region," observed Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Centre. While Iran has lost a strategic foothold in the Middle East, Hezbollah has lost a valuable route for supplies of Iranian weapons. At the same time, Hamas has moved its political leaders out of Damascus, where they lived in exile, and now hopes to take advantage of the rise in power of Sunni Islamist groups to which it has closer ideological connections.
Egypt sees itself on the right side of historic events in the region, and President Mursi will hope to use his trip to Iran as an opportunity to steer the agenda. Already he has called for President Assad's removal. At the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation summit in the holy city of Mecca last week, he also proposed the formation of a contact group - comprising Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran - to mediate a solution to the Syria conflict. Only time will tell if such an initiative will come to pass, but for Egyptians this is a chance to show they are regaining their regional clout, and with it their national pride.