x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Morsi's uncertain powers to be tested by Egypt's experiment

Egypt's new president should expand his administration, and so his influence, by reaching out to every group he can reach.

The election of Mohammed Morsi is a moment to take pause. He is the first democratically elected president of Egypt. He is the first Islamist president of Egypt. He is the first civilian president of Egypt. Whether one likes the man or not, you have to concede this is a historical moment for a 7,000-year-old country.

I suspect it will take time even for Egyptians to realise how much of a profound, transformative event this is - something I realised when I heard someone wonder out loud: "He's the first democratically elected ruler of Egypt since the Pharaohs!" Egyptians are understandably proud of their ancient history, but of course the Pharaohs - as great rulers as they might have been - were never elected.

The implications of Mr Morsi's victory will largely depend on whether he can wield the full powers of his office. Many politically connected Egyptians, including his supporters and his detractors, expect him to be a short-term president whose main task will be to transition to a new constitutional arrangement. Because the military changed the rules of the interim constitution as the election concluded, it turns out Mr Morsi won a different election than the one in which he thought he was running - one where the prize appears to be much smaller than originally anticipated.

As the debate over the constitutional revisions decreed on June 17 by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) continues, he may find himself having to compromise on an outcome that either limits his power, limits the length of his term by calling for new elections in 2013, or both.

This uncertainty has cast a shadow over this moment, and could even lead to a confrontation that reverses the progress made. Yet, at the same time, one gets the feeling of a real change in the air. The new president has said that he does not want, unlike his predecessors, his portrait hung everywhere.

The Egyptian media's rumour mill is still spinning at full speed, but now it is abuzz with the kind of speculation typical of any presidential transition: who will get what position in the new administration, the calculus and consequences of political alliances, etc. Mr Morsi may be an unusual president in extraordinary circumstances, but there is something refreshingly ordinary about his first few days in power.

It is also a credit to Egypt's political maturing (the word may seem unseemly considering the hysteria of the last two weeks, but I insist on it nonetheless) that aside from a few unhinged television hosts, the election of a Muslim Brotherhood supporter has not created a rebellion by Egyptians who did not vote for him.

There were those, including within the Muslim Brotherhood, who argued that contesting the presidency was a mistake - not because it broke with an earlier pledge not to do so, but because the first post-Mubarak president of Egypt was inevitably going to inherit a mess of problems and preposterously high expectations to solve them.

There is a logic to this argument, but it misses an important point of politics: a leader needs to confront these problems head on. Ruling Egypt is now no longer just a difficult task that requires a stern taskmaster; any political group or individual with a serious interest in shaping the new political landscape must be willing to make tough decisions and endure the blame for them. Mr Morsi may benefit from a very short honeymoon of sorts, mostly stemming from the relief that the political crisis over the elections is now over, but soon enough he will lambasted as the president who doubled the price of diesel and dealt with the inevitable unrest (if planned, and necessary, cuts to fuel subsidies are implemented).

For now, though, his tasks involve negotiating with two main groups: potential non-Islamist partners and Scaf. With the former, the test will be whether Mr Morsi's team will have the wherewithal to draw not just from reliable allies but to reach out to political enemies. There is a long tradition of tokenism in Egyptian politics, particularly towards women and Christians. Mr Morsi has promised appointments to senior positions, and he should have the wisdom not just to select a symbolic personality (as Mr Mubarak often did) but someone with a genuine vision and drive.

Christian members of the Morsi administration should not be simply people that the Coptic Orthodox Church approves of, reiterating the idea of Copts as a "protected minority" that is tantamount to second-class status, but powerful personalities who have proven themselves in their fields.

The same goes for women: there should be a break with the practice of a president compensating for the lamentable absence of women from electoral politics (just look at the composition of the recently dissolved parliament, just like those during the Mubarak era) by appointing a few figures to deal, most of the time, with women's affairs or take up "soft" portfolios like social affairs. When he reaches outside his brethren to be inclusive, Mr Morsi should give those he picks real power and responsibilities.

Dealing with Scaf is an even more serious challenge, one that will make or break the Morsi presidency and define the future of the Egyptian republic. There will inevitably be some sort of compromise with the generals, who seek personal guarantees for themselves and a voice for the institution they represent. The most immediate challenge is pushing back on the constitutional changes Scaf unilaterally made on June 17, an issue that is likely to be settled in the courts (cases are pending on the legality of that move as well as on how to deal with the dissolution of parliament and the constitutional assembly).

Beyond this, Mr Morsi should make use of the momentum he now has to expand the power of his administration as much as possible, particularly in appointing ministers and other senior officials, and leave the generals only those positions that are absolutely necessary, such as the ministry of defence. The key thing here is not that the Muslim Brotherhood should wield power because of its electoral success, but that civilians should.

Mohammed Morsi's first, and perhaps only, term may not be the full four-year one envisioned by Egypt's interim constitution. But it will be the one that defines Egypt's political transformation. Even his political opponents should hope that he lives up to the task.


Issandr El Amrani is an independent Cairo-based journalist who blogs at www.arabist.net

On Twitter: @arabist