Day: June 27, 2012

No laughing matter

Ilona Gerbakher reports:

Monday, as Egypt’s elections results were being broadcast to the world, Freedom House and the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies met to discuss “Revolution under siege: is there hope for Egypt’s democratic transition?”  Two of the speakers were unable to say the phrase “President Morsi” with a straight face, which is perhaps a good indicator of the future of his presidency.

Anwar Sadat, Chairman of Egypt’s Reform and Development Party, believes that it doesn’t matter who is president of Egypt, but the fact that the election took place at all proves that there is hope for a democratic transition. He urges America not to worry about the Muslim Brotherhood or further unrest in Egypt:  now that a president for “all Egyptians” has been declared, he believes things in Egypt will settle down. Egyptians need to look forward, not backwards–they must reconcile themselves to a united future and continue the democratic transition.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) will inevitably hand over power.  But even in this united, newly democratic Egypt, old economic and political challenges will prevail, particularly the Sudanese border, Libya and the “traditional” Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  He warned the revolution will not bring magic.  Without unity in the post-revolutionary period there will be no security, no stability and no safety.

Mohammed Elmenshawy, Director of the Languages and Regional Studies Program at the Middle East Institute, disagreed with the idea that the identity of the president does not matter:  if Egypt had elected Ahmed Shafiq, torch-bearer of the ancien regime, it would have marked the end of the revolution.  We are in a symbolic moment:  the election of a man outside of the elite circle who have ruled Egypt for the last 60 years.  He is also the first freely elected head of an Arab State.  Morsi is truly a man of the people.  He is a typical middle class Egyptian.  His wife looks and dresses like an ordinary Egyptian woman.  The fact that he is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood is also very important: they are the only organized people on the street.  Neither the liberal/secularist Egyptians nor the military elite are “on the streets, getting their hands dirty” as effectively and consistently as the Muslim Brotherhood.

Elmenshawy cautions, however, that the majority of Egyptians did not vote for President Morsi, but rather against his opposition.  Morsi does not have the solid majority political mandate that he needs in order to effectively counter the SCAF and the Egyptian “deep state.” The strong man presidency so typical of the Mubarak era is a thing of the past.  Morsi will be hampered by a weakened executive role in an Egypt that is more polarized than ever before. What is the role of the United States in this new post-revolutionary Egypt?  “You had better stay out, you better shut up.”

Nancy Okail, Director of Freedom House Egypt and recent guest of the Egyptian penitentiary system, asks whether this election is truly a new situation for Egypt, or merely a perpetuation of the past?  She agrees with Elmenshawy’s assertion that the vote was not for Morsi but against Shafiq and the SCAF.  She notes that over the sixteen months since Mubarak was forced out of office, SCAF has taken several steps to significantly curtail the power of the executive branch: it decreed that military intelligence can search and arrest civilians without due process, dissolved parliament and limited the power of the constituent assembly.  An article in the new constitution gives veto power over the constitution to SCAF, allowing it to cancel any part of the constitution they see as “inappropriate.”

All of these actions limit the power of the incoming president and shore up SCAF’s power. In addition, SCAF is playing up to wide-spread populist and xenophobic sentiment in Egypt, branding Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood as pro-American, splintering Morsi’s already fragile majority.  The message from SCAF to Morsi is that he is not going to be sitting on a very stable seat.

In what was perhaps a symbolic moment, she asked, “How will President Morsi…,” stopped herself mid-phrase, and told the audience “I’m trying to get used to it.” She laughed, and the audience chuckled with her.  Elmenshawy in a subsequent discussion was also unable to say the phrase “President Morsi” without chuckling to himself, laughter rippling through his audience.

But the weakness of newly-elected President Morsi is no laughing matter.  Will Morsi be the person to bring Egypt together? Sadat’s optimism aside, the laughter in the audience suggests not.

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