Figuring out Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is not an easy task. It is an exhausting process to understand his politics. As soon as one thinks they have him pinned, he surprises the world again.
Morsi made no compromises coming to power. The American-educated doctor of engineering treated the power struggle with the generals as a populist standoff, assuming time was on his side. He reasoned that if he continued pushing hard enough against the imposed limits on his authority and aiming for the greatest possible restoration of civilian authority, then more of the public would come to his side and demand the military concede.
But Morsi does not represent the people. At first, he tried doing what he was elected to do by some 52 percent of the voters. If he had not lashed out hard against longtime enemies, he would have upset his only support base too soon, losing the Muslim Brotherhood. That is why his first move was to reinstate parliament by decree and then when that did not work, he tried to find a friend in the courts. All the first moves on his part were attempts not at democracy but at getting the Islamist-dominated political alliance back in the legislature.
That is why all of those early attempts failed.
Morsi now claims to respect the court decision. He knew his position was teetering and he had to garner new political support from people who voted against him or do not yet support his presidency. They must see that their interests are being fought for. But building trust with these groups is a stretch. Trust is something of a luxury that no Egyptian power circles can afford. But small steps are finally being made on Morsi’s side. He has also made headway in reconciling with the military, as can be seen with him smiling and laughing with the top brass. Each side is still feeling the other out, finding boundaries and weaknesses.
With a cautious military supremacy and a conservative court that desire to maintain complete autonomy, there are small hints of a budding “state-within-a-state,” where two rulers will share Egypt through particular sectors of government.
Response to Morsi
President Morsi’s demands, in his mind, represented the people’s challenge the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), consisting of some 20 senior leaders of the Egyptian military. In the minds of the SCAF generals—people like Chairman and Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi—the president does not represent the whole people. Military leaders are adamant about having no “certain group” rule Egypt, which has been falsely interpreted as meaning the Brotherhood alone. In fact, the SCAF means to bar the coalition of the Islamists and Salafists led by the Brotherhood political party (the Freedom and Justice Party) and the even more radical Al Nour party. The military is far less afraid of the Brotherhood than of Al Nour, but the combination of the two and other smaller splinter Islamic parties are the major threat to secular Egyptian nationalists, which make up the interests of the military.
Morsi has no allies in the judiciary who want the Islamists taking over. The Supreme Constitutional Court stated that the 2011 parliamentary elections were illegal and at least one third of them were not elected according to law, which required there be electors as individuals equally. Instead, a third were elected from party lists.
Morsi ordered the parliament to meet immediately after his election. He wanted the new constitution rushed in by the majority Islamist/Salafist coalition and only afterwards was he willing to call on a reelection of parliament. Obviously, this would mean a highly Islamic constitution, and his moves upset the existing Supreme Constitutional Court because the new blueprint for the state would result in a system-wide reset and a new Islamic law of the land—a maneuver some have called a “constitutional coup” attempt.
Still, even if the SCAF claims to uphold the interests of all of Egypt, they do not represent the will and legitimacy of the people because they are not elected. This is why the SCAF was resorting to stronger propaganda through state media and more robust PR campaigns to help aid their favorability ratings. The lack of representation of the public is also why the SCAF made the concessions it has, including allowing the presidential election that gave Morsi the palatial suite. From their perspective, he became a constant gadfly to their interests.
Battle for Egyptian Legitimacy Marches On as Morsi Changes Tune to a New Cabinet
Morsi has been meeting with world leaders to establish a greater international presence and legitimacy. Courting Muslims and Western regimes alike boosts his legitimacy abroad, but not so much at home. Despite receiving the many calls on democratic reform, the SCAF is not going to let anyone tell it what to do—not even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
On Independence Day, the President said the 1952 revolution fell short of accomplishing democracy. He mixed in a bit of praise for the military’s recent actions during the revolution and the elections, but condemned them for not making final democratic steps. He also claimed that the problem of “corruption and fraud” was what was wrong with the old military under Hosni Mubarak’s pseudo-democracy.
While Morsi’s original intent was a power grab through parliament and numbers, he was then quick to retreat to strong stance of power transfer through democratization. Building a cabinet was Morsi’s most substantial step so far. The previous interim cabinet was set up by the military to run basic affairs under the SCAF. Morsi’s appointment of Hesham Qandil as the new Prime Minister of Egypt caught everyone by surprise. He replaced the last Prime Minister, Kamal al-Ganzouri, who left the office a little over a month ago. Qandil is the figure that made good on the president’s promise not to appoint a PM from the Brotherhood. The views of this little-known American-educated irrigation and water resources minister are, according to Emad Gad of the Socialist Democratic Party, similarly Islamist.
But this does not appear completely accurate. Qandil was part of the last cabinet selected by former Prime Minister Ganzouri, who was appointed by the SCAF. Morsi’s pick of Qandil surprised everyone and shocked the secularists the most. With the economy taking another plunge after the appointment, a well-known economist to manage Egypt’s growing economic crisis and neglect might have been a better choice, critics said. Restoring confidence in the Egyptian market economy to foreign investors has clearly not been as important to Morsi as appeasing his Islamist backers thus far. And members of the Al Nour party have initially had an unexpected welcome of the new Prime Minister, Mr. Qandil.
When Morsi asked the Prime Minister to form a government, he appointed a 35 member cabinet, consisting of: two females, a Coptic Christian woman; at least two from the liberal groups, like Ahmed Mekki (minister of justice, vying for a more independent court—which the courts will no doubt appreciate). Five ministers were from the Freedom and Justice Party in higher education, youth, manpower, information, and housing. Most importantly, not one representative of the cabinet was from the Al Nour Party and eight former ministers retained their positions, representing the interests of the SCAF.
One theory: The SCAF allows Morsi to appoint Prime Minister Qandil. The SCAF approves the cabinet that Qandil selects. All the most powerful or desired posts are kept by the former military appointed cabinet, including: defense, military production, finance, foreign affairs, culture, and four others. The SCAF controls everything behind the scenes.
Another theory: the SCAF does not control everything behind the scenes and is sincerely casting off things that it does not want or need. Instead, it is holding power in areas that matter most to the generals. In spite of the de facto control of the military, they were willing to compromise a great deal in sectors that they had less of an interest in. In the case of the Ministry of Justice, they accepted an independent liberal as minister. This was a statement to the Brotherhood, that they were not going to control the court system and to the people, that the judges of Egypt should remain secular and not associated with a leader of military influence.
Things may be doing better politically than the skeptics admit. The Ministry of Justice was a dividing line. The real transfer of partial power was giving the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in the two ministries of education and media.
The SCAF is clearly not thinking of long-term control in the battle for hearts and minds of the Egyptian public, although they retained the important Ministry of Culture. They have abandoned the official social engineering sphere as long as the Brotherhood does not threaten or criticize attack the military’s power sectors. The unofficial arrangement goes both ways, the military will permit the Brotherhood and their party governing authority over those limited sectors. It will reluctantly grant them the official state media but not control of censorship.
Recently, Morsi praised the military again, defending it from any would-be attackers or potential critiques while at the same time proclaiming his own “supreme” authority as President. In the statements was a vow not to ever interfere with the SCAF’s power sectors of government. It may be okay if everyone in Egypt and the world believe President Morsi is now Egypt’s real power, as long as he does not fully believe that, or threaten the SCAF.
Strategies and Futures
Morsi’s strategy seems like risky business, a mystery of complexity but no surprise. Expect him to keep making compromises as long as it works politically. He will stand to keep the most radical Islamists and the Salafists in check as he goes down this road. But too much is at stake to turn against the SCAF…yet. His plan is to slowly cajole the military leadership now over time, if he can. He is finished with sweeping policy moves like he displayed at the start.
One must think of the two as the state runners of business with capital to lose if they give away complete control. Depending on the SCAF’s grip of power over the institutions of government, they seem capable of holding the position they have taken. Morsi might back down a little on religious and political demands and start focusing on the immediate economic hardships and unemployment that face the nation or he might try and consolidate his power too early, believing his own statements that he is in charge of Egypt.
Ultimately, the President may be running out of moves. He must be aware that he cannot push too far, while at the same time be aware that he must at least continue to appear to oppose the SCAF. But the most remarkable moments of his career might well be over. Even the Egyptian constitution that will presumably be drafted must be approved by the chairman of SCAF, not the President. He will have no control over the military or the appointment of the defense minister, and no real control over foreign affairs, though they have let him meet with foreign ministers and heads of government—a role at which he has particularly excelled in—making sure to first reach out to the Palestinians and the Iranians.
The goals of the revolution were: “bread, freedom and social justice.” The battles wagged have been political. Now might be the time for the new cabinet to get to work. The President’s “Project Renaissance” that he campaigned for advocated strong Islamist principles, sanitation, health, jobs, policy reform and so forth.
Said Sadek, professor of political sociology at the American University in Cairo, suggests that new parliamentary elections might bring about new cabinet. He also said that as far as the people are concerned, they want leaders that can solve the immediate problems like power, water, jobs and safety; and after that, then they can talk about women, Copts, religion and so on.
The democratic transition that SCAF continues is a cautious but gradual power sharing environment with the Egyptian people. The SCAF initially keeps control of its economic interests, all security matters, holds on to key position in the cabinet, possibly takes a further step toward a bicameral congress—with the SCAF and their secular coalition partners residing in the upper house –and legitimate representation in the lower house, or what is now the People’s Assembly. Such divisions would place further place checks and balances on power.
Lastly, the interests of the people must be taken into account by all sides and the in-fighting must give way to reforms and progress. Protections of human rights and liberties must be guaranteed. Egypt over time has the potential to become more liberal and democratic in an Islamic fashion that the people of Egypt almost unanimously demand.
That is the fairy tale ending, anyway, but a peaceful and harmonious resolution to what lies ahead.