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Thursday, May 23, 2024

High expectations burden President Mursi

by Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor

© Shutterstock

Pre-election pledges have come back to haunt Egypt’s first democratically-elected president, as he focuses his efforts on foreign policy and ways of boosting a flagging economy, writes Linda S. Heard

President Mohammed Mursi’s job is unenviable. If he ever imagined he could seamlessly slip into Mubarak’s designer shoes, he’s had to think again. As George W. Bush famously pointed out, running a dictatorship is infinitely easier than a democracy. For one thing, the blood of young Egyptians was spilled on the streets during their fight for a better life. Tahrir Square is scheduled to be prettied-up as a monument to the revolution, which may be premature judging by frequent violent clashes between anti-government activists and Mursi supporters in and around that congested traffic circle.

For another, although he has resigned from the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) Freedom and Justice Party, there is a widespread belief among his opponents that the MB covertly pulls his strings. He’s been careful to show a moderate face and gone out of his way not to alienate Coptic Christians, liberals and women – but many Egyptians suspect he harbours a long-term agenda, citing his injection of MB members into the top echelons of government, the military and state-run media. They are suspicious too of the Islamist-dominated 100-strong Constituent Assembly tasked by Mursi to draft a new constitution scheduled for referendum in mid-November.

The constitution is a particularly hot button issue as whatever text is ultimately approved will not be universally accepted in this polarised nation. The Judiciary objects to the absence of a provision that would guarantee its independence and judges are incensed that the first published draft gives the President power to appoint the Chief Judge.

Secularists and Copts are concerned about an article that enshrines the principles of Islamic law as the main source of legislation and female progressives worry about another which ensures equality between men and women with the proviso the state will ensure a woman will “reconcile between her duties towards the family and her work in society”. Despite such vocal criticisms, provided Mursi’s base - made up largely of religious conservatives, the poor and the less educated stratum of society – remain faithful, the draft could be slimly embraced by the majority.

However, there are signs that those subsisting on under $2 a day and the lower middle classes are beginning to be disenchanted with the man who promised to fulfil 100 promises within his first 100 days in office when according to the Mursi Meter, a tracking website launched by Zabatak, a non-profit organisation, he has followed through on just ten. His critics highlight his failure to tackle shortages of fuel and gas bottles and say his promises to alleviate traffic jams, clear mountains of rotting garbage from the roads, reduce crime and eliminate corruption and bribes haven’t manifested. They maintain he’s spent too much time flying around the world being feted by heads of state and not enough concentrating on interior problems.

To Mursi’s credit, he has succeeded in reducing bread queues and has upped the quality of this subsidised staple, no doubt with memories of the 1977 and 2008 bread riots uppermost. But there may be trouble ahead. As part of its economic reform program, Mursi’s government has vowed to slash 40 per cent of existing fuel subsidies, accounting for one-fifth of government spending, saying they’re no longer affordable, whereas, in reality, the move is being made to secure a $4.8 billion IMF loan.

In truth, both Mursi’s pledges and people’s hopes were grossly unrealistic given such a limited timeframe, not to mention an economy that is struggling to show signs of recovery. Unemployment is up, investor confidence is nonexistent, the country’s foreign reserves are dwindling – and the bourse is volatile. The days when less well-off Egyptians were good-humoured and patient are no more as evidenced by a slew of industrial strikes. They want results now and whatever their political affiliations, they grumble bitterly that since the revolution little has changed.
Internationally, Mursi has achieved grudging respect for sending his country’s powerful army that was almost a state within a state back to its barracks and for his decisive cleansing of terrorists from the Sinai Peninsula using military force tempered by negotiations with Bedouin village heads. US fears that an Egyptian President drawn from the MB’s ranks would quash the Camp David peace treaty between Egypt and Israel have been largely quelled. Mursi has, however, been sending out mixed messages to Palestinians. He has referred to a Palestinian state as a top priority and Hamas. But he has come under criticism for sealing tunnels used to smuggle goods from Rafah to Gaza and for the rough treatment of visiting Palestinians by Egyptian border officials.

He has adopted what some have described as “a balanced foreign policy”; one that will ensure Egypt’s independence from foreign powers while seeking to maintain friendly ties. He was diplomatic in his response to President Obama’s hesitancy in calling Egypt a US ally saying he considered the two nations to be “real friends”. His speech at the Non-Aligned Movement summit held in Tehran in which he slammed Syria’s “oppressive regime” and his expressions of solidarity with the Syrian people during his speech before the UN Assembly indicate that he won’t sell his principles to Syria’s foremost ally Iran even for a fistful of much-needed dollars.

Lastly, those who believe Mursi’s foreign visits have been ego-engendered pleasure jaunts are mistaken. He has signed agricultural, environmental and telecommunications deals with China that is ready to extend Egypt “a helping hand” with its recovery to the tune of $10 billion. And, while visiting Ankara, he forged close cooperation with the Erdogan government in a variety of realms and flew away with a $1 billion loan as part of a $2 billion Turkish aid package. Qatar has also pledged $2 billion in aid. Importantly, he has mended diplomatic and economic ties with Saudi Arabia. In June, Riyadh transferred $1.5 billion to Cairo and opened a $750 million credit line to facilitate Egypt’s import of oil products.

If he can keep a lid on the mutters of discontent at home and ensure at least some of that aid trickles down to people most in need. If he can walk a tightrope between the disparate worldviews of his old MB comrades and the rest of his countrymen and win credibility by becoming a man of his word, local and foreign investors might be tempted to re-open their pockets. His plans and projects may be sound but as Jane Austen wrote in ‘Mansfield Park’, “a large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of”. Egypt’s poverty-stricken millions would, no doubt, agree.

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