Amid an atmosphere of great uncertainty Mohamed Morsi was sworn in today, June 30, as Egypt’s first civilian president. His victory was announced a week after Egyptians voted in the second round of presidential elections. During those tense seven days, both Morsi and his opponent, Ahmed Shafiq, declared victory, while the military and various political parties attempted to stake out their powers going forward.
As a result of this political posturing, Morsi will be ascending to a position whose powers have been highly curtailed. Thanks to a decree issued by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) on June 14, Morsi will not be head of the armed forces, and instead will be a member of a new national defense committee that has the power to shape foreign and defense policy. This means, he will not have the power to declare war or to make major foreign policy decisions unilaterally, and, according to the latest reports, will also have no influence over the government’s budget in the coming fiscal year. Going forward, the military will appoint the ministers of defense and the interior, two particularly powerful and influential positions. It should, as such, come as no surprise that the head of SCAF, Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, will be defense minister in the new government, a position he also held for two decades under the Mubarak regime.
Hemmed in on all sides and without a parliament to support him, Morsi will struggle to oversee the kind of economic, political, and social reforms the Muslim Brotherhood proposed in its manifesto, titled “The Renaissance Project.” Yet, Morsi has nevertheless pledged to make major tangible changes in his first 100 days in office. The official Egyptian news agency announced that he will focus on “traffic, bread, gas, security, and public sanitation.” Morsi has already met with experts to discuss ways to address Cairo’s notorious congestion, and has promised that rebuilding the Egyptian tourism industry will be a major part of his economic plan. If he succeeds in making visible progress on these high profile issues, it will go a long way toward increasing confidence in his government and rehabilitating the social contract between the state and its people.
Given the difficulty Morsi will have in governing, it may be slow going, but his ascension to the presidency is a signal that business as usual in Egypt is changing, if ever so slightly. His activities this week reveal a little about what this might mean. For example, his campaign announced that Morsi has requested that no pictures of him be displayed in any government institution or agency. In another statement, his spokesperson said he would prefer to stay in his own home rather than the presidential palace. On Thursday June 27, Morsi met with the heads of state, political, and private newspapers and television channels to discuss the role of the media in raising awareness, maintaining stability, and supporting confidence in the economy. He envisions applying the model of the BBC to recreate Egyptian state media as an independent and critical news source funded by the government. While it would be naive to believe the promises of a politician entering office, these moves are a break with the culture of blind obeisance to the man on top, which was cultivated by the Mubarak regime.
While the Morsi presidency is only one of many factors that will shape Egypt’s governance and policy in the coming months (and that is a generous assessment), Morsi himself has said, “[i]f I don’t fulfill my promises, oppose me.” Already, a non-profit group has set up a “Morsi Meter” to track his campaign promises. In reality, government accountability to its citizens is probably still some ways off, but this may be the start of realizing that goal.
Some Egypt observers predict that Morsi’s election heralds an era of a new elite, the Muslim Brotherhood, taking over where the old elite left off. This would leave most Egyptians to continue fighting over crumbs, this time in a more Islamic environment. Even as this may happen, Morsi’s initial moves to puncture the inviolability of Egypt’s presidency are new and may forecast a welcome change.