x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Mohammed Morsi's battle only began with Egypt poll win

After almost three months in power, Egypt's first civilian president is finding it hard to live up to the high expectations placed upon him. Youssef Hamza reports from Cairo

Egypt's president-elect Mohammed Morsi addresses tens of thousands of Egyptians in Cairo's iconic Tahrir Square. Egyptians’ expectations of their country’s first freely elected, civilian president are particularly high.
Egypt's president-elect Mohammed Morsi addresses tens of thousands of Egyptians in Cairo's iconic Tahrir Square. Egyptians’ expectations of their country’s first freely elected, civilian president are particularly high.

CAIRO // Nearly three months after taking office, Egypt's Mohammed Morsi is struggling to strike the right balance in both his policies and his public image.

His task is particularly difficult because of the high expectations of him as the country's first freely elected, civilian president. He took office after a popular uprising toppled an authoritarian regime and he made numerous promises while campaigning.

Mr Morsi is an Islamist, but often tries to distance himself and his Muslim Brotherhood from the militant Islamist groups.

He took office with a fragile mandate, winning the presidency with only about 53 per cent of the vote.

He is a nationalist but two of his five children have US citizenship and he was educated in the United States, receiving a doctorate in engineering from the University of Southern California in 1982.

His Brotherhood has a history of enmity with Israel and has often spoken against what it sees as the "unfair" terms of Egypt's peace treaty with the Israelis. But since coming to office, he has repeatedly assured the West that his government will respect the 1979 pact.

The latest test of Mr Morsi's delicate balancing act came from the ultraconservative Salafi Islamists, who are much more militant than his Brotherhood. Salafis led four days of violent protests outside the US Embassy in Cairo this month to denounce an anti-Islam film produced in America.

Initially, Mr Morsi remained silent about the protests. It was not until two days after they broke out that he said what many wanted to hear, especially in Washington. While touring Europe, he gave a seven-minute televised address urging Muslims not to attack foreigners or diplomatic missions.

Mr Morsi's initial silence may have been a reflection of pressure from the Salafis, who are using the uproar over the film to gain prominence while challenging his religious credentials.

The president, however, must be careful not to alienate the Salafis ahead of elections due this year or early next year, in case he needs their support to secure Islamists a majority in the next legislature.

Mr Morsi's balancing talents are needed elsewhere as well.

He took the helm of a nation that has seen nothing but authoritarian leaders since army officers seized power in a 1952 coup. Sixty years of that made Egypt's governing system more suited to dictators than democratically elected leaders.

In some ways, he seems to have taken advantage of how the system works. In others, the system, by force of habit, began to treat him as no different from his predecessors.

When the army launched a crackdown last month in Sinai against militants blamed for killing 16 Egyptian soldiers, Mr Morsi, who has no military experience, announced that he was personally leading military operations in the desert peninsula.

There is also the matter of his motorcade.

To the relief of Cairo's estimated 18 million residents, Mr Morsi travelled in the early days of his presidency in a motorcade of four or five vehicles, sparing Cairenes the torture they had endured every time Hosni Mubarak travelled in the city with his massive motorcade and the tight security that accompanied it. It caused traffic to come to a halt and a three-hour wait for motorists sitting in their cars was not uncommon.

Mr Morsi's motorcade has significantly grown in size recently, with dozens of riot police deployed before his arrival and sharp-shooters stationed on the roofs of nearby buildings for specific events.

Many Cairenes are now annoyed by Mr Morsi's habit of offering the Friday prayers at a different mosque each week. According to media reports, a woman frustrated with the tight security shouted at him as he was about to enter El Sayedah Zeinab mosque two weeks ago.

"If you are so scared, why don't you stay home," she yelled, according to unconfirmed reports that circulated on the internet's social networks.

The tight security now surrounding Mr Morsi is in sharp contrast to his dramatic gesture in Cairo's Tahrir Square only hours after he was announced the winner of the presidential election in June.

He shoved his bodyguards aside and opened his jacket to show he was not wearing a bulletproof vest. The gesture won him much applause from the square, but many elsewhere considered it a cheap populist move.

The Shura Council, the Egyptian parliament's Brotherhood-dominated upper chamber, surprisingly used a Mubarak-era prerogative to appoint Brotherhood members or sympathisers as the editors of state-owned publications.

The move made an instant impact.Criticism of the Brotherhood disappeared. Also gone was the front-page countdown for Mr Morsi's promise to resolve pressing issues such as fuel shortages, security and bread during his first 100 days in office.

Mr Morsi's comrades in the Brotherhood, sensing the president would not be able to show progress on any of these issues before the 100 days were up, tried to buy him time.

The countdown, some explained, began not on June 30 when he took office, but on August 12 when he removed his opponents in the military.

Others spun more creatively, saying the countdown was for making a promising start to resolving those problems, not actually solving them.