After Mubarak

Mohamed Morsi’s Great Burden: What’s Next for Egypt

The Islamist president must confront his fiercest opponent—the military. Vivian Salama.

Thomas Hartwell / AP Photo

With millions of people still flooding the streets of Egypt in a frenzied celebration over the results of the historic presidential election, Mohamed Morsi delivered his first televised address to the nation. Standing behind a tall podium marked with the presidential seal only hours after he was named the winner, he called for national reconciliation between fractured political powers. Morsi vowed to be president to all Egyptians in an effort to win the confidence of the 12 million people who voted for his opponent, Ahmed Shafiq, and the disenfranchised millions who abstained from casting a ballot. “I am aware of the challenges which face us now, but I'm sure if we work together, with your support, we will be able to pass through this transitional moment,” Morsi said in his victory speech.

The roller-coaster presidential race now behind him, Morsi, 60, must confront his fiercest opponent yet: the military. Days before the electoral runoff, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took several measures to consolidate power and limit civil rights, sparking outrage that drew tens of thousands of protesters back to Tahrir Square and around the nation. The Islamist-dominated parliament was dissolved a mere two days before voters went to the polls. The military also passed a decree stating that it—and not the president—will preside over the national budget, particularly with regard to defense. (Egypt receives $1.3 billion annually in military aid from the U.S.) Finally, it ruled that military officers can arrest civilians—a decision that was overturned Tuesday in an early victory for Morsi. The move kicked off the latest phase of Egypt's revolution under conditions of great uncertainty, with no parliament, no constitution, and a preemptively weakened president.

Agreeing on the fundamental principles that will guide Egypt’s future may be easier than finding the people to implement them. Boycotts and bitter allegations tarnished initial efforts to form a constitutional committee. The makeup of the panel has been a sore spot for secular activists and politicians after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the more hardline Al Nour Party claimed most of the seats. After months of wrangling, a new assembly was named just days before the presidential election, including representatives from most political parties, the country’s Islamic and Christian institutions, formerly jailed opposition members—even actors and artists.

The 100-member multiparty committee has already begun its work ahead of Morsi’s July 1 inauguration in an effort to rewrite the constitution with greater emphasis on a balance of powers between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches and the military. Defining the role of the president is particularly urgent as Morsi prepares to take office, with questions still lingering over term limits, whether or not he should have legislative powers, and his dynamic with the military. The military last week issued an "addendum" to a constitutional declaration written last year, stating that it can dissolve the constituent assembly if the governing body confronts any hurdles.

“Division of power issues remain unresolved,” says Hani Sabra, an analyst and Egypt expert at Eurasia Group. “It remains to be seen whether or not Morsi will keep the promises he made to the non-Islamist revolutionary forces a few days ago regarding the government’s composition and the constitution-writing process. The Brotherhood’s track record on keeping its promises to this bloc is poor.”

Critics of the Islamist groups claim that the last parliament, of which 70 percent came from the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi parties, was ineffective. Making matters worse, a number of scandals and embarrassing incidents overshadowed the groups’ reputation, including one widely reported incident of an ultraconservative Salafi lawmaker who claimed that bandits attacked and brutally beat him, but it was later revealed that he had gotten a nose job. Earlier this month, a second hardline lawmaker from Al Nour party was charged with “violating public decency," after he was found in a parked car engaging in intimate relations with a 23-year-old woman wearing a full face veil.

Ideology “has been the biggest stumbling block in this transitional stage,” said Mina Khalil, a Cairo-based Harvard law fellow at the Hisham Mubarak Law Center. “You need to have a consensus for the constitution to work, and if that fails then Morsi risks having SCAF step in and taking over the process.”

Many observers agree that two crucial issues should remain a top priority for Morsi to earn credibility as a leader among his citizens. First, security has been a major challenge since the revolution began in January 2011. The once-safe streets of Egypt have seen an uptick in theft, sexual assault, and weapons-related violence. In his victory speech, Morsi promised to maintain peace with Egypt’s neighbors and bring security to the streets. Calls for an overhaul of Egypt’s notorious Ministry of Interior and state security apparatus could boost Morsi’s legitimacy in the eyes of many Egyptians. The dark days of unwarranted arrests and detainment are deeply ingrained in the psyche of many across the country, and a repeat of such practices would inevitably drive people back to the streets with a vengeance.

Torture “is the big white elephant in the room,” said Heba Morayef, a Cairo-based researcher with Human Rights Watch. “You can’t address an institution that operated on the basis of using political torture for punishment or even basic investigative tactics—there needs to be a complete overhaul. It’s institutional reform, it’s legal reform, but it’s also key prosecutions which and of itself will act as a key deterrent.”

Perhaps Morsi’s biggest test will be stimulating the domestic economy. When the revolution began last year, already 40 percent of Egyptians were living below the poverty line, according to the United Nations. The economy shrunk by 4.3 percent in the first quarter of 2011 and remained flat in the following three quarters. Local currency debt has built up to more than 600 billion Egyptian pounds ($99 billion)—up from the pre-revolution level of £500 billion. Morsi has pledged to seal the deal for a loan from the International Monetary Fund once he forms a government, but the IMF has said that it would not agree to a loan until the country’s budget deficit is in check.

Many believe the burden inherited by Morsi is too great. “He won’t be able to deliver,” said Sabra. “Egypt’s economic, social, and political ills are deep, as are structural issues, and it is unlikely that political novices have the tools to handle them. Egypt’s very bumpy ride will remain turbulent.”