Tough Road Ahead For Egypt's New President, Islamists

Jun 24, 2012
Originally published on June 25, 2012 8:35 am

The winner of Egypt's first competitive presidential election is the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi. The official announcement was made Sunday to the cheers and jubilation of a massive crowd in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Challenges remain, however, as the ruling military council has effectively stripped the incoming president of most of his powers. The popularly elected Parliament, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, was also dissolved.

Despite the military council's limiting of the president's power, Samer Shehata, an assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, says it's still unclear if Morsi's hands will be completely tied.

"I don't think he will only be the person who is allowed to greet foreign dignitaries at the airport," Shehata tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "[But] certainly ... [it] restricts his power to execute a plan to govern Egypt."

Morsi, and the Muslim Brotherhood, represent a political movement that is fundamentally at odds with the Egyptian military's vision. Shadi Hamid, director of research of the Brookings Doha Center, tells Raz that this is just the opening salvo in a long struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the ruling military.

"At the end of the day, they both want to dominate Egyptian politics," Hamid says. "At some point, there isn't going to be enough space for both of them."

In the short term, Hamid says, both groups have to learn to live with each other so they have an interest in finding at least a temporary arrangement.

These power struggles aside, Morsi's election is still meaningful for Egypt, Shehata says. The fact that the candidate who won was not the one supported by the ruling military council, he says, means the votes put in the ballot boxes actually counted.

"It means that the revolution continues," he says. "It also means that the old regime candidate is not at the helm, and revolution has not been issued a death certificate."

Domestic Struggles

Millions of educated but unemployed young people, a corrupt oligarchy that controls private industry, a massive underclass and religious tension are just a few of the problems Egypt's economy faces. These are now up to Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to solve.

If Egyptians don't see marked improvement in their daily lives, Hamid says, they could easily turn on Morsi and the Brotherhood. That was a risk the Brotherhood felt was worth it, he says. Because of that, the Brotherhood and Morsi are likely to put everything they can into this democracy.

"For them, everything is at stake," he says. "So I think there is kind of an incentive structure that will push the Brotherhood to confront the issues that matter, rather than the divisive religious and social issues that sometimes distract Egyptians."

The Brotherhood has said Egypt's future will be in the hands of a diverse number of groups, not just the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi has even pledged to name a prime minister and other top officials from outside the Brotherhood as part of a unity government.

Foreign Relations

Hamid says many regional leaders are unlikely to be happy with the results of the Egyptian elections, as they see the Brotherhood as an enemy; many countries have Islamist opposition groups. Anti-U.S. and anti-Israel comments from Morsi and the Brotherhood are also likely to make Western observers concerned.

"That said, with the Muslim Brotherhood, pragmatism comes first," he says. "They know they have to work within an international system ... so they're going to find a way to work with what's in front of them."

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So how will Mohammed Morsi's presidency change Egypt? Well, for that answer, I'm joined by Samer Shehata. He's an assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University. And, Samer, great to have you back.

SAMER SHEHATA: Thanks for having me.

RAZ: Also with us from Doha is Shadi Hamid. He is the director of research for Brookings Doha Center. Shadi, welcome back to you as well.

SHADI HAMID: Hi. Thank you.

RAZ: Let me start with you, Samer. Practically speaking, how much power will Morsi have to make big changes?

SHEHATA: Well, we don't know yet because, of course, the constitutional declaration that the military council put forward last week limits the president's power significantly. I don't think he will be only be the person who is allowed to greet foreign dignitaries at the airport. But certainly, the idea that he doesn't have control over the armed forces, the military council, in addition to the legislature being in the power or in the hands of the military council, all of these things, of course, restrict his power to execute a plan to govern Egypt.

RAZ: Well, Shadi Hamid, how do you envision Egypt's powerful military leaders working with a President Morsi? I mean, he essentially represents a political movement fundamentally at odds with what the military's overall position is.

HAMID: What we're seeing is the start of a long struggle between the Brotherhood and the military, and this is just the first kind of opening salvo in that - I mean, the Brotherhood and the military are a strategic enemy. That at the end of the day, they both want to dominate Egyptian politics. And at some point, there isn't going to be enough space for both of them.

But I think in the short run, they have to learn to live with each other. So I think both have an interest to find some kind of temporary arrangement. And I mean, one way of looking at that is the military will continue to control foreign policy, national security and their own affairs. And the Brotherhood, at least for the short term, will focus on the economy, education, health, the kind of bread-and-butter issues that affect Egyptians on a daily basis.

RAZ: Samer Shehata, it sounds like a clash, though, is inevitable. Could you imagine a real clash that could become bloody?

SHEHATA: Well, we've already had clashes. I mean, this is the thing, right? We have not had a revolution or at least a complete revolution in Egypt. We've had, since the day that Mubarak was pushed out of office, February 11, 2011, at least 200 to 300 people killed in clashes between the security forces led by the military and civilian peaceful protesters.

So it's quite likely that we're going to see that in the coming months, unfortunately, if these issues aren't resolved. And they're not resolved still. It is important, however, to get our heads around one very important issue, and that this is a great day for Egypt, not because Mohammed Morsi won, but because it does seem as if the votes put in the ballot boxes actually counted. In other words, all of us knew that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces did not want Mohammed Morsi. Shafiq was much closer.

But the fact that they were either restrained from fixing the vote or the judges operated correctly, that is incredibly important. And it means that the revolution continues. There's tremendous changes that still need to be placed. But it also means that the old regime candidate is not at the helm and the revolution hasn't been issued a death certificate, which would have been the case if Shafiq would have been declared the winner.

RAZ: Shadi Hamid, let me ask about the broader domestic crises that Morsi faces. Millions of educated young people without any work, a corrupt oligarchy that controls private industry, a massive underclass, religious tension. I mean, he has a lot on his plate.

HAMID: Well, exactly. Be careful what you wish for. The Brotherhood got what it wanted, but now it's thrust into a very challenging situation. And Egyptians could easily turn on the Brotherhood and Morsi if they don't see tangible improvements in their daily lives. The Brotherhood realizes that, and they decided that it was worth the risk. And that's why, I think, for them the economy is going to have to be number one, and that will include securing an IMF deal that will bring billions of dollars into Egypt. That's going to be really crucial for the Brotherhood in the coming weeks and months.

But I mean, it's worth pointing out, though, that the Brotherhood can mobilize different aspects of society. The Brotherhood is a kind of state within a state. So I think they're going to put everything into this democratic experiment right now, because for them, everything is at stake.

So I think there is an incentive structure that will push the Brotherhood to kind of confront the issues that matter rather than the kind of divisive, religious and social issues that sometimes distract Egyptians.

RAZ: Samer?

SHEHATA: Mohammed Morsi has been dealt a hand of cards now with the way Egypt is, worse than President Obama was handed when he came into office. Financial crisis and two wars overseas not of his choosing. There's a real economic crisis. And so the challenges that he faces are incredibly daunting. As Shadi said, he realizes that. And there are already efforts by the Brotherhood to try to say it's not going to be the Brotherhood; it's going to be a wide range of Egyptian groups and non-Brotherhood members and individuals who are going to be leading the country.

And Morsi has said that he's going to appoint a prime minister who's not from the Brotherhood. He's going to appoint several vice presidents who are also not from the Brotherhood. So in some senses, this is a risk of our strategy to say even if we do fail, it's going to be a collective effort and it's not only the Brotherhood.

RAZ: Let me ask about foreign relations. We know that this makes the Israelis nervous because of their peace treaty with Egypt, but it also makes the Saudis nervous, too, right? First to you, Shadi.

HAMID: Sure. Well, I've gotten to know Morsi a bit over the last couple of years. And we've discussed some of these issues at length. I mean, he's as anti-American as they come, unlike some other Brotherhood leaders who are a bit more measured.

For example, Morsi is what we would call a 9/11 truther. Most Egyptians are, too, but it's actually the thing that would probably be concerning to Western observers. And that said, with the Brotherhood pragmatism comes first. They know they have to work in an international system. They hate Israel, let's be clear about that, but they know that Israel is there. It's a reality. So they're going to find a way to work with what's in front of them. That's important to keep in mind.

As for the Gulf, no Gulf leaders are happy with today's result. They see the Brotherhood as an enemy partly because they have Islamist opposition in their own countries, in Saudi Arabia, in the Emirates, for example. So we're going to have to wait and see how they respond to this. But they're not happy about it.

RAZ: That's Shadi Hamid. He's the director of research at Brookings Doha Center who joined us from Doha. Shadi, thanks.

HAMID: Thanks for having me.

RAZ: Also, thanks to Samer Shehata. He's an assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University. Thanks for coming in, Samer.

SHEHATA: You're welcome.


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