Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 2012, Pages 57-58
Days before Mohamed Morsi was sworn in as Egypt's first freely elected president on June 30, two events were held in Washington, DC to discuss the implications of the country's June 16-17 run-off presidential election.
At a June 25 event co-hosted by Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and Freedom House titled "Revolution Under Siege: Is There Hope for Egypt's Democratic Transition?," Anwar Esmat El-Sadat, the ex-president's nephew, president of Egypt's Reform and Development Party, speaking via Skype, discounted the significance of the election. "I care more about the constitution than who is president," he said, stressing that considerable attention must be placed on ensuring that the country's new constitution is "to the satisfaction of all Egyptians."
Mohamed Elmenshawy, director of the Languages and Regional Studies Program at the Middle East Institute (MEI), vehemently disagreed with El-Sadat's opinion. "The name of the president is very significant and very important," he asserted, arguing that the election of Morsi, an "ordinary" Egyptian who is both middle class and an Islamist, symbolizes a dramatic and significant shift in the country's political landscape.
While much has been made of Morsi's election, Nancy Okail, director of Freedom House's Egypt office, reminded the audience that the new president's powers are to an extent limited and undefined. She specifically pointed to the June 17 supplementary constitutional declaration issued by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The declaration—which gives SCAF legislative powers until a new parliament is elected, along with control over the defense budget and the power to veto a presidential declaration of war—"completely deflates the powers of the president," she stated.
Regarding the future role of SCAF, Elmenshawy said that "it will take time for them to be removed from politics." SCAF "wants nobody to come close" to its economic interests and its budget, he pointed out, and predicted that, going forward, "the real challenge for [SCAF] is the authority of the president."
Elmenshawy's prediction rang true on July 8, when President Morsi issued a decree reinstating the lower house of parliament, which SCAF had disbanded on June 15 following a Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) ruling that found the law governing parliamentary elections to be unconstitutional. On July 10, the SCC quickly dismissed Morsi's decree as unconstitutional, and Morsi announced that he will respect the decision of the court.
In terms of how Morsi will govern, Elmenshawy commented that it will be interesting to watch the extent to which Morsi interacts with the Muslim Brotherhood. Many have speculated that Khairat al-Shater, the Brotherhood's preferred candidate, who was disqualified from running, will be calling the shots from behind the scenes, Elmenshawy noted. Following his victory, Morsi symbolically resigned from his position in the Brotherhood-backed Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).
While Morsi ran on an Islamist platform, Okail noted, his victory does not mean that Egyptians desire an Islamist government. "People voted for Morsi to avoid military rule," she said, noting that many non-Islamists voted for Morsi (who won 51.7 percent of the vote) because they viewed his opponent, Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak's final prime minister, as an extension of the ousted political order. Indeed, Okail said, following his victory leftists who voted for Morsi put him on notice, telling him, "Now we go back to the seats of the opposition."
Arguing that the concerns of Egyptian Copts are "overstated," Elmenshawy expressed optimism about the impact Morsi's election will have on the Coptic Christian community. Okail differed, arguing that Elmenshawy had no firm basis to make such a statement.
This topic was further explored at a June 28 MEI event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace titled "Egypt after the Elections." Responding to speculation that Morsi might select a Copt as one of his vice presidents (it has been speculated that he may select up to six vice presidents), Hafez Al Mirazi of the American University in Cairo said that any such appointment must be genuine. Symbolic appointments "are not going to work in Egypt after Jan. 25," he said.
George Washington University Professor Nathan Brown pointed out that Morsi selecting a Copt as a vice president "would be huge in ideological terms for the Brotherhood." Because the Constitutional Declaration states that the vice president must have the same qualifications as the president, Brown noted, a Coptic appointment would be a de facto concession on the Brotherhood's behalf that a Copt could indeed be president.
Khaled Elgindy, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, cautioned that combating the "deep state" (political elites and entities firmly entrenched in the old political order) will be a very difficult task. Because it is defined by its "opaqueness," Elgindy said, the "deep state" is "not something that can be reformed through legislation or an act of parliament." Rather, "it's something that is really going to take quite a bit of time to dismantle," he said.
In Brown's opinion, it is difficult to measure the extent to which SCAF is influencing the rulings of the judiciary. While he did speculate that some judges may be acting "in response to a telephone call they just received from someone in a high position," Brown said that a majority of judges are attempting to reflect in their rulings "various [political] trends they see within the society."