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28 June 2012

Mursi in the middle of a minefield

By: George S. Hishmeh
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It was an historic achievement, regardless of where you stand. The milestone that Mohammad Mursi, a Muslim Brotherhood candidate, achieved in winning the first democratic Egyptian presidential election in 5,000 years last Sunday marked a pace-setter in the Arab world.
Moreover, the hesitant acknowledgment of the Egyptian military leadership of Mursi’s triumph irrespective of the close vote in favour of their preferred candidate, Ahmad Shafiq, was a trail-blazer.
True, the Egyptian military leadership group, better known as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) which had controlled Egypt since former president Hosni Mubarak was ousted more than a year ago, had major stakes in pulling the rug from underneath Mursi’s legs. In fact, Scaf had shamelessly wasted a week, with no signs of a recount as implied, in the hope that Mursi’s widely acknowledged triumph was exaggerated which would give his rival another chance at claiming victory.
Nevertheless, Scaf pulled other strings to maintain its supremacy. For example, it sacked the recently elected Egyptian parliament, assuming legislative powers and the right to veto provisions of a permanent constitution; set budgets, full control over all military affairs, and, most importantly, stripped the incoming president of most of his powers, re-imposed martial law, and authorised soldiers to arrest civilians.

There is no doubt that Mursi may henceforth be walking into a minefield. His country is divided since he had only received a little over 51 per cent of the votes in the run-off election while about 50 per cent of voters had failed to participate. In other words, he had only 25 per cent endorsement of the electorate, which means that he will have to concentrate on domestic policy though Egypt is a key player in the Middle East. In his first speech after his election this was clearly indicated in his remarks: “We believe in the importance of the new Egyptian government upholding universal values, and respecting the rights of all Egyptian citizens — including women and religious minorities such as Coptic Christians.”

But his most important battle will be with the military which is trying to maintain its dominant position within the country — and needs to improve the Egyptian economy.
More than 40 per cent of Egyptians are reported to be living below the poverty line and the country’s situation has generally worsened since the uprising last year. According to the BBC, the withdrawal of investments, the closure of a large number of factories and persistent strikes in various sectors have taken their toll on the economy. More than half of Egyptian foreign reserves have already been eroded.
Egypt’s relationship with oil-rich governments in the Arab region as well as the major powers will be crucial. The United States, the largest donor to Egypt — of about $1.5 billion annually (Dh5.5 billion) — has so far taken a positive stance describing recent events as “a milestone for Egypt’s transition to democracy.”
But what is more significant for fellow Arabs in the region is how the new Egyptian regime, once its surpasses the potential pitfalls, will deal with Israel and other blazing situations in neighbouring states.
For example, the head of the Islamist Hamas government in Gaza, which has a close relationship with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Esmail Haniya, told Reuters this week: “We will look to Egypt to play a big role, leading role, a historic role, regarding the Palestinian cause, in helping the Palestinian nation get freedom, return home, and totally end the Gaza siege,” imposed by Israel.
On the other hand, Robert Satloff, head of the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote on his group’s website that “for its part, Israel will cling to Scaf, with whom it has more intimate contact and better relations today than at any point in years.”
Sounding critical of the Obama administration for “clearly not [being] distraught at the idea of a Mursi presidency,” Satloff seemed disenchanted that the American president has not signalled before the run-off Egyptian election his “concern that a Mursi victory could negatively impact US interests in terms of regional security or civil liberties... limit[ing] itself to anodyne statements about ‘building democracy that reflects [Egypt’s] values and traditions’ whatever that means...”
He continued that before the Mursi model “goes viral across the Middle East... the Obama administration should fashion a series of policy dilemmas for Egypt’s new president and his colleagues to clarify answers to that key question.”

* An Arab American columnist based in Washington. - Hishmehg@aol.com

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