If this were a dictatorship it would be a heck of a lot easier . . . as long as I’m the dictator,” said President Muhammad Mursi. Actually, that’s not true, he didn’t. That’s a quote from George W. Bush followed by his trademark “Hehehe.” But what’s the betting Egypt’s first democratically elected leader is privately thinking just that?
His predecessor Hosni Mubarak had it a lot easier. His word was his command. His leadership was one without checks and balances, infused with cronyism and corruption. Those were the days when Tahrir Square was known only for its omnipresent traffic congestion and petrol fumes. How things have changed!
Mursi celebrates the January 25th revolution laced with reverent references to Tahrir Square in almost every one of his speeches. However, his government plans to change its raw identity as the place for activists to let off steam by erasing revolutionary graffiti and prettying it up as some kind of monument to the past. As we witnessed last Friday, dubbed “Accountability Friday,” the day when liberals, secularists and leftists gathered to vent their grievances and clashed with Muslim Brotherhood supporters leaving dozens injured, such a plan is premature.
Criticisms of Mursi’s 100-day track record are varied. Most of his pledges to make sweeping changes within that period remain unfulfilled. According to the Mursi Meter website set up by independent newspapers, he’s only managed 10 out of 54 to date. “Only elect me and within 100 days I shall get rid of the five most-vexing issues affecting the Egyptian people: Personal security, out-of-control traffic paralyzing the roads, the shortage of subsidized bread, insufficient supply of cooking gas and gasoline—and mountains of garbage throughout the country” are words that are coming back to haunt him. Not only have those burdens tormenting the lives of ordinary Egyptians not improved, many are convinced they’ve worsened. Those changes require mountains of money, which the government simply doesn’t have at its disposal.
To his credit, the president has done his utmost to fill Egypt’s fast emptying coffers by applying for a $ 4.8 billion IMF loan, although his request has been slammed by ultra-conservatives as un-Islamic. He has been flying around the world pressing allies for financial aid, loans and investment. He has forged new economic and trade ties with Gulf states, Turkey and China. And he has shaped a healthy independent foreign policy by maintaining the longstanding cold peace with Israel while espousing Palestinian concerns, taking a diplomatic posture vis-à-vis the US without seeming to be in Washington’s pocket—and he has been vocal about Assad’s savagery toward the Syrian people. Mursi has also proved that he can be decisive with his sacking of the army’s top brass and his use of military force, tempered by negotiations with radicals, to rid the Sinai Peninsula of terrorist elements, still a work in progress.
But however hard he tries, he will never be able to please all of the Egyptian people. Never mind all of the time; not even some of the time.
The rich and the well-heeled middle classes often screw up their faces at the very mention of his name, often because “he’s not one of us” or because they worry that social restrictions will be imposed that may impinge upon their lifestyle choices.
Coptic Christians and secularists are consumed with suspicion that although Mursi has donned a somewhat moderate visage, has resigned from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and has promised to represent the interests of all Egyptians regardless of faith or gender, his goal is to turn Egypt into an Islamic state, which is why the drafting of a new constitution is such a hot button issue. His attempt to return the country’s Parliament to session adjudged unconstitutional by the Supreme Constitutional Court, his appointment of MB stalwarts into high positions within government, the military and state media and his tasking of a 100-strong Constituent Assembly short on liberals to produce a draft charter only serve to fuel their worries.
Non-government-controlled media fear he’s out to limit freedom of the press and impose censorship. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) has issued a report citing 43 violations of the media’s freedom of expression and the banning of articles criticizing the government. Likewise, Egyptian movie directors and stars are bristling about moves to limit their creativity.
The judiciary fears the loss of its independence and has been fighting Mursi tooth and nail to retain it. The president’s attempt to side-line the unpopular Prosecutor-General Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud by appointing him an ambassador and packing him off to the Vatican City, failed dismally. Mahmoud refused to budge and was supported by some of the most influential judges in the land. Following a two-day standoff Mursi climbed down.
Mursi’s job is unenviable. My gut tells me he’s well-intentioned but, unlike Mubarak, he’s destined to walk a tightrope throughout his term of office. Egyptians aren’t the easiest people to govern; after all, they’ve exchanged blood for their hard won freedoms. They have high expectations and patience isn’t their strong-point. Understandably, patience is a dirty word for the poorest subsisting on less than $2 a day. It is that sector of Egyptian society, the majority, that propelled Mursi into office and if and when their patience runs out, his tenure will be short.
An elegantly-attired middle-aged woman from a well-known ‘old money’ family told me with a chuckle that complaining about Mursi has become a national pastime in the way that Britons moan about the weather. “We Egyptians live to complain,” she said, while expressing her conviction that everything would turn out well in the end.” No doubt eighty-five million Egyptians share her hope. They know what they deserve and they’re feisty enough to get it.
Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.