In a ceremony in a Cairo Stadium this week, President Mohammad Mursi toured the arena in an open-top car saluting the crowds commemorating the October War. The president looked confident as he delivered a speech celebrating the success of the Egyptian army in crossing the Suez Canal in 1973. He did not miss the opportunity to draw a parallel between “The Crossing” and the “January 25th Revolution”, both of which united the popular and military will – as he said – to bring about victory and change.
President Mursi has received widespread acclaim for speeches like this one, and there are many indications that the new president, who was referred to in the past as a “reserve candidate”, has genuinely begun to establish himself as a confident and capable figure. Indeed, his speeches – despite their exaggerated religious tone – resonate with populists and the poor and have begun to make him very popular in rural areas and provinces, the names of which he still repeats in every speech.
Likewise the president – a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood – has kept an appropriate public distance from the group and its leaders. Even Mohammed Badie, the Brotherhood General Guide, said in an interview with this newspaper: “[Mursi] is now the President of all of Egypt, and we are all behind him and his decisions” (Asharq Al-Awsat, 17th September 2012). This reflects the political space that the president has been granted in order to construct an identity for himself separate from the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau, as those close to the group would attest.
At the regional and international level, President Mursi performed well at the African summit, the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran, and more recently the UN General Assembly meetings. As for regional issues like Syria, Mursi has ignored the Iranian spin, condemning Bashar al-Assad’s regime and demanding its departure. Regarding Israel, Egyptian authorities cooperated with their Israeli counterparts to tackle terrorist group during the recent crisis in Sinai, and Mursi did not delay the appointment of a new Egyptian Ambassador to Tel Aviv.
There are also positive indications in foreign policy, and the president has so far remained committed to the existing framework of Egyptian policy: not restoring relations with Iran unless certain conditions are met, not bypassing the Palestinian Authority’s in dealing with Hamas in Gaza, but also remaining cautious and not getting too close to the West Bank government.
However, this positive performance may be hiding some of Mursi’s deficiencies and constraints, some of which are institutional, and others which concern the president’s decisions and the performance of his team. It is true that Mursi recognized some of his shortcomings in his assessment of his government’s first 100 days in power in a speech last Saturday, saying: “What has been achieved is not enough of course, but what has been achieved by professional standards is about 70 percent of what we targeted during those 100 days”. Yet despite this, the president still gave himself a much higher appraisal than he deserves.
If we evaluate the professional performance of President Mursi objectively – regardless of ideological orientations – we could say that he has achieved political acceptance, but has not yet developed a government program to tackle Egypt’s political and economic situation. As for his proposed 100 day program, this is a bundle of unconnected promises. Addressing the crisis of domestic gas pipes, arresting petty criminals, or even cleaning the streets and squares are all worthy actions, but they are better suited to municipal councils or civil society initiatives. Rather, Mursi’s priorities should involve budgets and economic growth, and stopping the financial hemorrhage of Egypt’s national reserves.
At the very least Mursi must restore government revenues to their pre-January 25th level. While the president is talking about improvements in security and obtaining assurances for loans and foreign aid in excess of US$ 10 billion, such aid, even if obtained, will not compensate for what Egypt has lost in the tourism sector alone, which accounts for 17 percent of the country’s GDP. If the government cannot demonstrate that it has a program to compensate for – as well as stop – the decline in reserves, then there will be concern among businessmen and investors that the government may be unable to maintain its trade balance, affecting the stability of Egypt’s currency.
In the last year, growth fell from 7 to 1 percent, prompting the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to stipulate cuts in government subsidies in order for Egypt to be eligible for a loan of nearly US$ 4 billion. President Mursi understands the importance of obtaining this loan given the necessity of retaining the confidence of global financial institutions. Perhaps for this reason he claimed that the proposed interest rate of 1.1 percent was not usurious, in order to justify his government’s negotiations with the IMF, recognizing that he had to make ideological concessions to meet the needs of Egypt’s national and economic security.
The demands of the job mean that the new president must face the same crises as his predecessors, and adopt some of the same policy he once opposed. Each leader has his or her own style, but government institutions impose restrictions, institutional pressures and bureaucracy. These would be difficult for anyone in the job to overcome, unless they are intent on demolishing and replacing said institutions, which does not seem to be Mursi’s desire.
Some Western writers admire Mursi’s performance, which they call pragmatic, but I think a more accurate description of Mursi is that he is a tactician rather than a strategist. However, what Egypt needs now is a strategy for the future.
President Mursi may not yet have a sufficient enough mandate to take courageous steps such as cutting subsidies for example, but at the same time he does not need to prove his legitimacy to anyone. The fact is that he needs a viable economic program, and this is what the Egyptian citizens will be waiting for during the next 100 days.