For Egypt's new president, getting elected was the easy part

President Morsi is the first freely elected president in Egypt's history. Now he has to form a government, forge a working relationship with the military, and address a shrinking economy. 

Ann Hermes / The Christian Science Monitor / File
In this file photo, Mohamed Morsi, then-senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, addresses reporters during a press conference in Cairo.

In the past week Egypt's Mohamed Morsi has rung up a string of firsts. The first freely elected president in Egyptian history. The first Islamist head of state in the Arab world. And first in line to receive the blame – or the praise – for the Egyptian ship of state's course. At the moment, it has practically run aground amid political turmoil and a shrinking economy. 

The tasks in front of Morsi are daunting. Investment in Egypt has collapsed since Hosni Mubarak was driven from power by a popular uprising in January and February of 2011, the country's senior officers have demanded an increased share of formal political power, and a politicized judiciary has become an erratic, unpredictable player in the country's politics – dissolving the freely elected parliament, considering a petition to ban the Muslim Brotherhood that drove Morsi to the presidency, and making pronouncements on the constitutionality of efforts to write a new constitution.

And though Morsi won the presidency fair and square, the Egyptian public is sharply divided. Ahmed Shafiq, a retired officer who served as Mubarak's last appointed prime minister and who represented the military class's interests in the presidential race, received over 49 percent of the national vote. Some of those votes were out of a straightforward desire for the stability that largely prevailed under Mubarak's military-backed regime. But many were cast against an Islamist presidential candidate whose organization's stated goal is the imposition of the Islamic sharia on Egypt's people..

On Morsi's side of the ledger were many voters who don't approve of the Muslim Brotherhood's free market economic approach or determination to transform Egypt into a state governed by Islamic law. Instead, these voters saw a civilian Islamist president likely to be at loggerheads with the powerful Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) as preferable to restoring the state of affairs that had prevailed in Egypt since the Free Officers coup of 1952 until this week.

For the moment, furious back room lobbying and negotiations are taking place in Cairo. Morsi is scheduled to be officially sworn in as president on Saturday, and after he formally takes office he'll be in charge of appointing a prime minister and a cabinet. The military would like to influence his choices, as would the revolutionary and secular parties that hold little electoral legitimacy at the moment but were major forces in shaping the uprising that ousted Mubarak.

Morsi promised in his victory speech last weekend to be a compromising head of state, and has promised that his cabinet will include secular politicians, at least one member of Egypt's Coptic Christian minority, and women. He's also said that he'll appoint a vice president without ties to the Muslim Brotherhood or its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), an organization he cut formal ties with after being announced the winner.

Who exactly he'll pick has yet to be determined and Egyptians are warily looking on. He could appoint women, but all of them loyalists from the Muslim Sisters. He could appoint a Christian or two, but a compliant one (one of the FJP members of the parliament was a Copt). A substantial number of Egyptians are frightened that events of the past few weeks are the leading edge of a full Islamist takeover of Egyptian life, with repressive Saudi-style social codes, a step backward for women, and an increased marginalization of the ancient Coptic community. Morsi's aides insist they shouldn't be scared, but the truth of their assurances will start to be revealed in the coming weeks.

The April 6 Youth Movement, an umbrella group of mostly secular-leaning politicians who were deeply involved in the uprising, formally supported Morsi against Shafiq. But this week they also set up a website called the "Morsi Meter"  to measure the new president's success in meeting his campaign promises. So far, the meter reads: "Promises that have been achieved: 0 out of 64." The website has the promises grouped in three categories: Security, traffic, and bread.

These are the sort of tangible, difficult to deliver things that millions of Egyptians are looking towards.

Crime has risen in the past year-and-a-half, on the one hand, while a corrupt police force that relies on torture to obtain confessions from alleged criminals remains on the beat. Millions of Egyptians rely on government-subsidized bread to survive – the Egyptian government is the largest wheat buyer in the world – and the size and quality of Egypt's subsidized loaves has declined in recent years. Where the money will come from to turn that situation around remains uncertain. At the time of Egypt's uprising, the country's foreign reserves stood at $36 billion. Today, they are around $15 billion.

Egypt remains without a constitution, and its rules are now a hodgepodge of the Mubarak-era constitution and a series of constitutional amendments issued by SCAF since February of 2011. A constitutional assembly packed with Islamists and appointed by the now dissolved parliament, which the Muslim Brotherhood and allies from the Islamist Al Nour party dominated, is still technically in control of the process, and is scheduled to meet on Saturday. But an Egyptian court is set to rule on the constitutionality of the assembly itself on Sept. 4. The court could well dissolve the grouping, a move that would probably be backed by the senior officers, who have indicated they would like to control the drafting process.

The military's most recent declaration contains a vaguely worded statement that gives the military the power to dissolve the group if it "encounters obstacles that prevent it from completing its work," which effectively gives it a veto over the whole process even if the court rules to leave the body in place. 

Finally, there are the questions of new elections. For now, there are three effective independent branches of government: the president, the courts (packed as they are with Mubarak-era appointees) and the military council, likewise a manifestation of the old regime. If and when a new constitution is written, new parliamentary elections will be held (assuming the courts don't throw another curve ball and overturn their earlier decision). And after that, the military has indicated it would like fresh presidential elections. If so, Morsi may end up with less than a year on the job, rather than a full term.

The political clock is ticking in Egypt. Though measuring presidents on their first hundred days is an American practice popular with journalists and pundits, but rarely truly indicative of how a presidency will play out, in the Egyptian case it's probably apt. President Morsi may not have much more time than that.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.