Sooner, rather than later, Egypt’s first freely elected civilian president will have to demonstrate that he is not a ceremonial ruler of one of the most influential countries in the Arab world and Africa.
After all the pomp and ceremony that accompanied the swearing in of Muhammad Mursi as president, culminating in a military parade in his honor to mark the handing over of powers from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the 60-year-old Islamist figure faces early battles over the extent of his authority.
Mursi’s public demeanor and conciliatory speeches have compensated for his lack of charisma. His modesty and humble attitude as a man who occupies the highest post in the country have endeared him to many, including critics of the Muslim Brotherhood to which he belonged until recently. But the tasks that await him are neither easy nor modest.
Mursi has presented himself as a representative of the Jan. 25 revolution that toppled the former regime of Hosni Mubarak. He declared that he will be a president for all Egyptians, and that he will protect the civil state, oversee economic recovery and restore Egypt’s place in the world. Egyptians have pinned great hopes on the first president of the second republic. But in order to deliver he must first wrest what remains of his executive powers from the military.
Skeptics believe Mursi and SCAF are already on a collision course. The office of the presidency has been stripped of many powers in recent weeks. A supplementary constitutional declaration was issued few days before the announcement of election results under which all legislative powers were kept with SCAF in the absence of an elected legislature. Earlier the Higher Constitutional Court dissolved the People’s Assembly, in which the Islamists had an overwhelming majority. In addition, SCAF said that it must have a say on the outcome of the Constitutional Committee, entrusted to draft a new constitution, which was formed by parliament. That committee could also be disbanded soon by the courts.
Mursi’s most immediate mission will be to name a new prime minister and Cabinet. Under a previous agreement with a coalition of nationalist powers, he had promised to appoint an independent figure as premier. The Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), had vowed not to play a key role in the new government. According to leading figures in the FJP the cabinet will be comprised of technocrats. Former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Dr Mohammad El Barade is the strongest candidate to head the new government.
But even here the new president faces challenges from the military council that wants to have a role in selecting the ministers of interior and foreign affairs while holding the defense portfolio. The head of SCAF, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, is the current defense minister.
Mursi has thanked the army for running the country’s affairs for over a year and half but called on them to return to their original mission of safeguarding Egypt’s borders and national security. But that does not change the fact that army still wields considerable influence in running the state. It is an uneasy partnership that Mursi will have to manage carefully.
If legal attempts to overrule the Higher Constitutional Court’s decision to dissolve parliament fail, and they are expected to, then the president and SCAF will have to agree on holding new legislative elections. Reclaiming legislative powers from the army can only take place if a new parliament is elected. This means that this uneasy marriage between SCAF and the president will continue for few more months.
Meanwhile, the Mursi, who presents himself as a populist president, must deal with immediate challenges such as the economy, poverty and unemployment. Egyptians are waiting eagerly to reap the fruits of the “great renaissance project” which was promised by the Muslim Brotherhood and FJP earlier.
Egypt now has an elected president, but it has no parliament and no constitution. Normalcy and stability will not return to the country until these two hurdles have been cleared. And in both situations Dr Mursi and SCAF will have to work together. This does not satisfy hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who have been protesting at Tahrir Square for many days now. They want to reinstate the legislature and see the military hand over all executive powers to the elected president.
At one stage Mursi will have to choose sides. It is no easy task. The Islamists have learned from the experience of holding too much power in the disbanded People’s Assembly. Now they are changing their tactics. Their reconciliatory tone underlines willingness to share power and prove that they can pass the test of ruling Egypt successfully.
So far they have emerged as winners and Mursi’s first days in office have brought him praise. His upcoming tests will be in forming a new government and an all encompassing presidential council. By building on popular support and maintaining his alliance with nationalist parties he hopes to slowly reclaim SCAF’s authorities. The big victory will come when the army hands over all powers and return to the barracks.
— Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.
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