President without a job description

Celebratory gunshots could be heard all across Egypt on Sunday afternoon, following a long-drawn announcement confirming that Mohammad Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential candidate, had narrowly beaten his rival Ahmad Shafiq.

For the first time ever, the will of the Egyptian people has been recognised. Although there were some voting irregularities, few would dispute that Mursi, an engineer who studied in the US, won fair and square. Doubtless, Sunday, June 25, 2012, will always be a landmark in Egypt’s history as the day the Egyptian people’s struggle against dictatorship and repression finally bore fruit.

Not everyone was jumping for joy, though. Members of Shafiq’s camp—who had gathered at a Cairo hotel, confident that their man would be victorious—had tears in their eyes when they heard the news, which some interpreted as their country’s social and economic death knell. Coptic Christians and liberals fear an Islamist takeover, which could irrevocably alter Egypt’s historically moderate face. Quite a few have disclosed to me that should Mursi triumph, they would pack their bags and fly out. In truth, they have no cause to panic, not yet anyway.

President-elect Mursi will be a leader in name only unless the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) makes good on its promise to hand over power to a civilian government, which does not look like happening any time soon in spite of pressure from the US.

Indeed, Scaf, believed to control up to 40 percent of the economy, recently shored-up its grip with legislative, constitutional and executive powers. At the same time, the Islamist-dominated parliament was dissolved on a technicality. Earlier, the constituent assembly had been disbanded due to a disproportionately large Islamist makeup and the inability of conservatives and liberals to arrive at a consensus on a new constitution. It is now the responsibility of Scaf to appoint a new constituent assembly to represent all segments of society.

Scaf has more authority and control over the nation than it has enjoyed since the 1952 military coup. At its core is a wish to preserve the separation of religion and state so it is unlikely to abandon the nation to the Muslim Brotherhood, no matter how evolved the movement now purports to be. Military head honchos must have groaned when the results of the election were known. It would have been so much easier to be seen stepping aside for one of their own former air force officers—Shafiq.

Aware that any attempt to skew the vote would be met with mass violent protests, it is believed that Scaf has worked out a political deal with Mursi involving Scaf’s acquiescence to his presidency in return for Mursi’s agreement to recognise a supplementary constitutional declaration issued by Scaf limiting presidential powers.

As things stand, the country is without a constitution and without a parliament while its new president will be obliged to go cap in hand to the military for approvals. He will not be able to take Egypt to war or cancel the Camp David peace treaty with Israel without a rubber stamp from Scaf. It remains to be seen whether the Muslim Brotherhood will reluctantly accept those restrictions on the basis that half a loaf is better than none or whether its leaders will agitate to rein-in the military’s puissance. I can’t prophecise, but I believe it will be the former.

Mursi needs to show what he is made of to retain his following and keep the nation intact. Now that he is “in charge,” he is unlikely to encourage dissent or risk alienating Scaf that says it will no longer tolerate attacks on security personnel or the destruction of public buildings. An unnamed official close to Scaf told Reuters that “the onus now is on the new president to unite the nation and create a true coalition of political and revolutionary forces to rebuild the country economically and politically.”

With Egypt polarised, Mursi’s task will not be easy. He will have to walk a fine line between satisfying the demands of his base and reassuring Christians and liberals that his government will be inclusive. To his credit, during his victory speech, he vowed to be “a president for all Egyptians whoever they may be” and declared that all international treaties would be respected. He has also resigned his position within the Muslim Brotherhood to facilitate personal impartiality. The composition of his cabinet will signal the direction he intends to take. If he is wise, he will invite his rivals to join him, especially those with experience in running a country; experience he sorely lacks.

The US, the UK and Israel have cautiously congratulated the Egyptian people on making an important transition to democracy. In the final analysis, it is their country and they must be their own architects. They have made their choice; the naysayers might not like it, but they should respect it. Only time will tell whether it’s the right one. However, the beauty of democracy is that four years down the road they will get to choose again.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

Comments are closed.