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Morsi's 'Difficult Balancing Act' Ahead

Interviewee: Daniel Brumberg, Co-Director, Democracy and Governance Studies, Georgetown University, Senior Advisor, United States Institute of Peace
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
July 3, 2012

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Egypt's new president, Mohamed Morsi, faces many hurdles ahead, from major political issues like reinstating the parliament and picking a broad-based cabinet to severe economic problems, says Egypt expert Daniel Brumberg of the United States Institute of Peace. "How he's going to parlay these multiple pressures is anybody's guess," says Brumberg, "but the economic situation is dire, and he has to create and promote enough political and economic stability to attract investment funds, and also make sure that the tourists that have largely deserted Egypt come back." Brumberg also notes that Morsi faces the difficulty of promoting reform while dealing with Egypt's powerful military.

If Morsi were to call you and say, "What should I do?" what would be your tentative advice for him?

My tentative advice for him would be to first meet with political leaders from the spectrum of main political parties and groups that constitute the fractious opposition, both liberals as well as rival Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis. He's got to make it clear to this broad spectrum of groups that he will consult with them and that they will be included in any new government. At the same time, he has to deal with the military, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and communicate two messages: first, that he understands that the military is part of the game, and he will negotiate with them, and second, that he's committed to making sure that cooperation will advance the cause of the democratic transition and not retard it. He's got to communicate that double message to the military. He's got a very difficult balancing act ahead of him now.

Any guesses on who Morsi might choose as prime minister?

The rumor mill is churning, and too many names are popping up all over the place. He is under pressure to demonstrate to non-Islamists that they will be included in the government, and he may choose to ask a non-Islamist from the liberal opposition to take that position, but it's anybody's guess. The fundamental challenge he has now--the one that's most pressing--is to make sure that the 100-member Constituent Assembly, which was chosen just prior to the dissolution of the parliament by the Supreme Court, is maintained and goes about its business in terms of creating a new constitution. That is uppermost in the political leadership's minds in Egypt.

The very future of that assembly is now up for grabs, since it was created by a parliament that's since been dissolved. But the assembly met July 2 and it's continuing its work. I think the one thing he'll try to ring from the military and from the courts is a willingness to allow this assembly to continue to exist rather than being dissolved.

Describe the Constituent Assembly.

There's a general relief that Morsi was elected, because the perception was that had Ahmed Shafiq been declared the victor, Egypt would have been in store for a period of tremendous internal instability and violence, and there's a general sense that Morsi needs to be assisted as best as we can.

It was selected by the parliament itself and includes many parliamentarians, but is not limited to them. There was a great deal of controversy and contention within this assembly. In the days leading up to the dissolution of the parliament, and the assertion of new powers by the military, there were very severe strains within the parliament and the Constituent Assembly about who would be members of that assembly. Non-Islamists complained that they were underrepresented; a deal was finally struck, and the Constituent Assembly has convened twice already, but there are still members who are unhappy about its makeup and are boycotting it. Everything demonstrates very clearly that the absence of a constitution from the start has really hampered the transition, and Morsi and his colleagues in the Muslim Brotherhood realize that as well.

Over the weekend, Morsi met with Farouk El-Okdah, the governor of the Egyptian Central Bank. Many commentators say the economy is biggest problem facing Morsi. What can he do about that?

He's under pressure from the IMF and the international financial community to take measures to rein in spending and to move on the path of economic reform. This is a policy the Muslim Brotherhood, or the Justice and Freedom Party, which is its political wing, has pretty much committed itself to.

But Morsi also announced this morning a 15 percent pay raise for government workers. He's under tremendous pressure to deal with the financial situation of so much of the populace, which is hurting, including the vast numbers of people who make up the government workers. On the one hand, he's under pressure to restrain and so on, and on the other hand he's getting pressure to spend more and to control inflation. I don't envy him. How he's going to parlay these multiple pressures is anybody's guess, but the economic situation is dire and he has to create and promote enough political and economic stability to attract investment funds and also to make sure that the tourists that have largely deserted Egypt come back.

Egypt's big supporter over the years since the peace treaty of 1979 with Israel has been the United States. Is Washington inclined to help out Egypt with something like an Egyptian Marshall Plan?

I don't see right now any major initiatives to help Egypt address its economic crisis. U.S. government policy makers are trying to wrestle with the changes going on now; the election of Morsi itself, what this means for the region, for U.S.-Egyptian relations, and so on. Eventually we will see a package of assistance, but I'm not sure what the details will be. There's a general relief that Morsi was elected, because the perception was that had Ahmed Shafiq been declared the victor, Egypt would have been in store for a period of tremendous internal instability and violence, and there's a general sense that Morsi needs to be assisted as best as we can.

After his public speech on Friday to the big crowds in Tahrir Square, Morsi had a formal inauguration June 30 in which military and other officials were present; he met later that day with the military leadership, had nice words to say about the military, and was awarded a medal. He's obviously had to cover his bases everywhere.

[Morsi's] situation is analogous to the situation of reformers in, say, Latin America in the 1980s, who had to deal with powerful militaries and had to cut deals with them.

To Morsi's credit, during his speech to the constitutional Court, where he was crowned by the military and also Farouk Sultan--the outgoing head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, who was partly responsible for issuing the decisions on the dissolution of the parliament--[as well as in his speeches] at Tahrir and at Cairo University, Morsi was very clear in his determination to push forward reform. I think he's quite serious about that, but he's made a calculation that on a certain key issues, he's going to have to make concessions to the military.

You can't really blame him for that, because if he pushes too hard at this point, he could provoke a strong negative reaction from the military. It's very early days, but he's demonstrating pretty good skills in trying to balance these competing demands. We have to wait and see what the makeup of the parliament will be [and] what kind of power-sharing deal he will have to make with the military, which will probably insist on the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Defense, and probably the Ministry of Justice as well, because the Ministry of Justice is so closely allied with the of old power elites.

Eventually, Morsi's supporters and critics will ask what he got in return. The military is going to have to offer something, perhaps agreeing not to dissolve the Constituent Assembly. Morsi will always be assailed by critics from all sides, but particularly from the left, that he's sold out.

Discuss the parliament issue in more detail. Why was it dissolved by the Supreme Court?

Everything demonstrates very clearly that the absence of a constitution from the start has really hampered the transition, and Morsi and his colleagues in the Muslim Brotherhood realize that as well.

The court's decision was based on the fact that one-third of the seats were elected according to both party affiliation and independent affiliation. The court's decision was that this disadvantaged both voters and candidates who were independents. You can read the decision and say, "Well, they have a point, and perhaps the argument should therefore be made that that one-third of the parliament would have to be reelected." But the court went ahead and dissolved the entire parliament, a much more radical move.

There are leaders from both the Muslim Brotherhood and some of the non-Islamist parties who have said they would have accepted a compromise whereby one-third of the parliament would be reelected under independent candidate status. It's still possible that that will be a compromise solution, although Morsi has been quite defiant in saying that he's going to push for the reinstatement of the parliament. I'm going to be surprised if he's able to achieve that, but the compromise might be over one-third. At this point, it's doubtful the military and the judiciary will compromise on that point.

What about Egyptian figures like Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, both of whom initially ran for the presidency? Are they just going to fade away?

No, Baradei has created a Constitutional Party, and he is like a number of ardent secular leaders who are trying to create a third alternative, or third current, as it's sometimes referred to. There's recognition among the non-Islamist parties that their own division has really harmed them, because it undermined their capacity to negotiate with the Muslim Brotherhood. Baradei is certainly active in this effort to create this third alternative.

Baradei was adamant, when there was a referendum on the sequencing of the transition in March 2011, [that] you have to have a constitution, and then go on to other things. Baradei can say "I told you so," and many people who were critical of that perspective now agree that that's important. But Baradei is still very suspicious of working with Islamist political leaders, and while there's been rumors floating that Morsi might choose him to come into the government, which would be quite a bold move, nobody really knows.

What about the foreign policy problems?

Apart from the relationship between Morsi and the United States, there's the question of Egyptian-Israeli relations. The Israelis are very nervous. We have the question of Gaza and the underground tunnels from Sinai; we have the security situation in Sinai, which is very bad and could get worse quickly. There is also the question of the trials of military leaders accused of human rights abuses, as well as hundreds of Egyptians who still remain in Egyptian military prisons. I don't really envy [Morsi]. He's got an enormous amount of pressure to deal with from multiple sides, and he was never the ultimate mover and shaker in the Muslim Brotherhood. But sometimes leadership extracts from people surprising talents that had remained underneath the surface.

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