Mursi in charge, at home and abroad

Published in Egypt

By Afro-Middle East Centre

The past few weeks have witnessed a convergence of several important issues facing post-uprising Egypt: new Egyptian president Muhammad Mursi’s opportunism in his attempt to reform the judiciary (as he was able to do with the military), the lack of accountability of those responsible for human rights abuses, post-conflict justice and the outstanding new constitution. This has culminated in a battle for the independence of a judiciary that is one of the last bastions of the old regime.

Mursi’s presidency is founded, at a time of uncertain transition, on tenuous popular legitimacy. He must fulfil the demands made during the uprisings while maintaining a broad-based popular legitimacy. One such call was to hold accountable members of the former government, the military and state police for the brutality and human rights abuses that occurred during the uprising. In its report ‘Brutality Unpunished and Unchecked’, Amnesty International concludes that the army used excessive force in the three incidents it studied: the Maspero protest in October 2011, the ‘Cabinet Offices’ events in late 2011 and the Abasseya sit-in. This includes well known incidents such as the woman whose underwear was exposed as policemen dragged her by her hair during the December 2011 protests, a scene that was captured in a video that went viral. Amnesty’s report shows that security forces tortured male and female protesters using beatings, electric shocks, sexual threats and sexual abuse. And worse, the report concludes that victims of these abuses are still waiting for justice and legal remedy.

The president has emphasised that Egypt will chart its own path on international relations, prioritising the country’s national interests. His overall goal appears to be reassertion of Egypt as a regional and global power. He has already pursued several bilateral meetings to bolster Egypt’s international legitimacy.

Mursi has built or strengthened relations with Iran and China on the one hand and the USA on the other; and both Hamas and Israel. In his attempt to reestablish Egypt’s role as a regional powerhouse, he criticised the Syrian regime while conducting bilateral talks with Iran, a key Syria supporter. In August, during his speech at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Tehran, Mursi said Egypt was willing to assist and support Iran if it would cease its unconditional support of the Syrian regime and would participate in finding a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis. While Mursi’s attempt at pulling together key states to find a diplomatic solution (the ‘Islamic Quartet’) has fallen by the wayside, it remains an example of his push for Egypt to regain its regional influence.

Where many had expected Mursi to be naive and uncharismatic, he has proven adept and has already been able to secure important economic support and financial aid from Qatar and Turkey. Abroad, he risked offending Iran in his criticism of Syria, but was able to enhance perceptions of himself and Egypt as a regional leader, thus increasing his support and popularity at home.

Constitutional crisis and the judiciary fights back

Mursi’s greatest domestic political feat was his reversal of the 18 June 2012 Constitutional Addendum issued by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which sought to deprive the new president of full presidential executive powers, including the role of commander-in-chief of the armed forces. With its addendum, SCAF had sought to resist civilian oversight of the military. Although plans are in place, no date has been set for the re-election of parliament after its dissolution by SCAF. The elections, when they occur, will further cement Mursi’s legitimacy as leader of a new democratic Egypt. New parliamentary elections are to be conducted sixty days after the approval of a new constitution via public referendum.

Herein lays the problem. The process of formulating a new constitution has been marred by the politics of the constituent assembly itself. Around forty court cases have been brought against the assembly since the elected parliament was dissolved by SCAF and the judiciary, just prior to Mursi taking office. These were mainly accusations of the constituent assembly being unrepresentative and unbalanced. The composition of the assembly had originally mirrored that of the elected parliament and was dominated by Islamists – the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi al-Nour party. That first assembly was dissolved by the Supreme Administrative Court in April for having included members of parliament, who are themselves responsible for electing the constituent assembly. An agreement was reached on 7 June 2012 between Islamist and non-Islamist parties on the membership ratio for the assembly, and this was followed by the election of the second constituent assembly. It had been decided that Islamists would hold only fifty per cent of constituent assembly seats. This saw al-Nour forfeiting its twenty per cent of the total Islamist majority of seventy per cent.

While the legality of the second assembly is still being battled in the courts as it again included members of parliament, it has been under pressure to release a draft constitution and avoid further delays. The assembly did release a partial draft of the new constitution on 10 October. The draft was, however, greeted with scepticism as the extracts did not include clauses dealing with the role of Islam, the military and the judiciary. A media frenzy ensued when supposed ‘leaked’ clauses revealed that the constitution would limit the power of the judiciary. There was a fierce reaction from the judicial bureaucracy that resulted in a grand showdown between Mursi and this old-regime institution.

Worsening matters, the prosecutor general, Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, failed to convict twenty-four prime suspects accused of involvement in the ‘Battle of the Camel’, the February 2011 attack on protesters in Cairo ordered by high profile figures from former president Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. The judges ruled there was a lack of evidence and said there was only one credible witness despite much anecdotal testimony. This followed a string of acquittals in cases against those accused of killing unarmed protesters during the uprisings.

Mursi knows these acquittals can have serious political consequences and are a show of strength by the judiciary, a reminder of the legacy of the previous regime. To counter a possible backlash from the general populace, he issued a decree to pardon all political prisoners detained ‘for all felony and misdemeanour convictions or attempted crimes committed to support the revolution and the fulfilment of its goals’. However, anger over the acquittals overshadowed Mursi’s attempts to fulfil the people’s demand for justice. He tried to remedy the situation by firing Mahmoud and appointing him ambassador to the Vatican. The president’s response, however, lacked legal or popular authority and he was forced to back down and ‘politely ask’ the prosecutor to resign. The move, however, became another in a series of allegations that Mursi is abusing his power. 

Neither East nor West

Mursi’s first official visit outside the region was to Beijing at the end of August. He hoped to sign cooperation agreements and discuss regional and international issues of mutual interest with China. This included trade between the two countries which has increased dramatically in the last four years. From Beijing he went to Tehran for the opening of the NAM summit, arriving with the large delegation of business people that had accompanied him to China.

Mursi’s recent diplomatic efforts point to a multi-polar foreign policy. His spokesperson, Yasser Ali, said the president planned to visit Malaysia and Brazil among other Asian and South American countries. He also has Africa high on his agenda for foreign visits and a visit to South Africa could be in the pipeline. The shift towards Africa is significant: Mursi recognises a potential role for Egypt on the continent. His speech at the recent UN General Assembly meeting was indicative of this. In it, he spoke at length on the conflict between Sudan and South Sudan and claimed an African identity for Egypt. He also mentioned the Somali conflict, especially significant since Egypt has been appointed to the African Union’s Peace and Security Council. Mursi’s enthusiasm for participating in African Union (AU) meetings is a sharp departure from his predecessor’s tradition; Mubarak had refused to attend any AU meetings after an assassination attempt on him in Addis Ababa in 1995.

One of Mursi’s very first visits was to Ethiopia as the head of the Egyptian delegation to the AU summit in July. Ethiopia provides Egypt with its largest share of Nile water, although the former has recently been contesting this share. Egypt receives the majority of its Nile stream flow from the Blue Nile which it needs for agriculture, municipal and industrial purposes. However, Ethiopia, one of the key upstream riparians of the Nile, is planning to develop its water sources, to help provide food, energy and jobs to the Ethiopian population, many of whom live in poverty. Egypt believes Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam project along the Blue Nile, the central project in Ethiopia’s new water plan, would be at the expense of its water flow. This has led to the Nile Tripartite Commission (comprised of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan) study on the impact the dam will have along the Nile River. This week the International Panel of Experts (IPoE), which consists of six experts from Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan, and four international experts, reported that it has found no evidence that the dam project will negatively impact on downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan.

The final findings on the impact of the controversial project will be submitted to the relevant governments in under nine months. Ethiopia launched the construction of the Renaissance Dam after Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya, and later Burundi, signed the Entebbe agreement in April 2010, partly to undo colonial-era agreements which gave countries such as Egypt an advantage over Nile water. Among Mursi’s priorities is to resolve the matter with other countries along the Nile and to secure its water flow for Egypt. In early October he visited Uganda’s capital Kampala to take part in the country’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations. No doubt the talks between Mursi and the Ugandans included issues related to the Nile Basin region. Egypt’s new prime minister, Hesham Qandil, is expected to visit South Sudan, indicating an increased focus on resolving the Nile water issue and establishing stronger links on the continent.

Mursi’s aides have emphasised that foreign policy expansion to the east and the south will not undermine already-established commitments that Egypt has towards the USA and other western allies. His first visit to the USA took place end September when he attended the opening of the UN General Assembly session in New York. While many expected him to prioritise a visit to the USA given Egypt’s dependence on US aid (including 1.3 million dollars annually in military aid) and trade, this was not so. Among other strategic reasons, a visit to Washington after US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was given a hostile reception in Cairo by protesting crowds a month earlier would have been a domestic public relations disaster for Mursi. Beyond this, two other issues are relevant to Egypt’s relations with the USA: Iran and Israel.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood – Mursi’s ideological home – has long had relations with Iran. His participation in the NAM summit marked the first visit by an Egyptian president to Iran since that country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution when diplomatic ties between the two countries were severed. Mursi offered to mediate to improve relations between Iran and the Gulf states that have long viewed Iran with suspicion and whose fears have deepened because of Iran’s nuclear programme.

Regarding Israel, Mursi has repeatedly said he will uphold international agreements entered into by the previous Egyptian regime, including the Camp David peace agreement with Israel. However, he has also repeatedly indicated that the terms of the agreement were disadvantageous to Egypt and that Israel had failed to meet its obligations under the agreement. This has been interpreted as a warning that it might be up for renegotiation, a cause for anxiety among the Israelis.

While security coordination with Israel in the Sinai and border areas as well as the main terms of the agreement will likely be maintained in the long term, the Egyptian president has also declared that Egypt and other Arab states were responsible for the restoration of Palestinian rights and statehood. He emphasised at the last Arab League meeting that diplomatic changes backed by popular sentiment will lead to real political action, and that this was the key to restoring Palestinian rights. He also pledged support for Palestine’s bid for membership at the UN.

Populist rhetoric against Israel may continue, but it is unlikely to impact too severely on diplomatic relations between the countries, as both have much to lose. Most interesting is that the Brotherhood has traditionally taken an anti-Israeli position and, in light of Mursi’s democratic election, he has emphasised that his pro-Palestinian policy was representative of the will of the Egyptian people.

While Mubarak preferred good relations with Palestinian group Fatah, the Islamist Hamas has the ear of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement from which it originates. Although joint Israeli-Egyptian campaigns to secure the Sinai region have included the destruction of tunnels connecting Gaza to the Sinai – which have provided routes for goods, people, food, medical aid and weapons for years – Hamas has been uncharacteristically silent on the matter. This can be explained by Hamas’ relative contentment with the consolidation of power – including military authority – in Mursi’s favour.

Arab solutions for Arab problems

Egypt’s diplomatic actions thus far indicate the return of a more regionally involved, pan-Arab and pan-Islamic Egypt. The key initiative in this regard is Mursi’s ‘Islamic Quartet’, a group of Muslim countries that was to take the lead in resolving the Syrian crisis. The initiative sought to bring together Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt – all supporters of the Syrian rebellion – with Syria’s main regional ally, Iran.

Egypt tried to entice Iran to join the Quartet by promising full restoration of diplomatic ties and has even dangled the carrot of possible purchases of Iranian oil. This would potentially address Egypt’s recent fuel shortages sparked by its dwindling foreign currency reserves and lowered credit ratings. Mursi also offered a ‘safe exit’ for Syrian president Bashar al-Asad, his family and members of his inner circle. However, Saudi Arabia avoided attending the Quartet meetings and the initiative has effectively failed.

Mursi knows all too well that the key to regional stability and leadership depends on uniting the region against foreign interference. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are major backers of the Egyptian economy through state and private sector investments. However, they have been wary of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings and the risk that these may inspire uprisings in their own states, threatening their long-standing monarchical rule. Relations with Saudi Arabia, which the Brotherhood has historically criticised on the basis of ideological differences, are complicated. Egypt’s taking a lead on the Quartet has not been received well by Saudi Arabia and has increased tension between the two states. Since taking office on 30 June, Mursi has twice visited Saudi Arabia, first for a bilateral visit, and then for an Organisation for Islamic Cooperation summit on Syria.

New alliance with Turkey

The war across Turkey’s border and Egypt’s political and economic crises have brought the two states together. They hope to build an alliance that could lead to a significant geopolitical shift in the region, rooted in political Islam. Recently, Egypt and Turkey discussed lifting visa restrictions and completed joint naval exercises in the Mediterranean in early October. A broader partnership across other sectors will probably be discussed during an upcoming visit to Cairo by Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey needs partnerships with Arab states after its troubles with Syria, and Egypt’s reassertion in the region would be boosted by an alliance with rising hegemon Turkey.

At the end of September, Mursi signed a deal to borrow one billion dollars from Turkey, half of the aid that the latter had promised to Egypt earlier this year. He has spoken frequently of strong regional policy ties with Turkey and praised Turkey for being the first country to support the Egyptian revolution. While the FJP has made it clear it is not looking to Turkey’s ruling AKP as a political model, it will consider learning from the Turkish party’s success in building a regional economic powerhouse which has delivered strong economic growth.

Conclusion

It is clear that the Muslim Brotherhood is more pragmatic and cautious than many had assumed. Mursi has successfully challenged assumptions about Egypt’s foreign policy. His initiation of the ‘Islamic Quartet’, his commitment to uphold the Camp David agreement with Israel and his decisive declarations in support of the Palestinians are, at the very least, audacious. He has been able to clear a path for Egypt’s return to dominance and leadership in the region and globally.

Domestically, the four-month old president has established a powerful, politically pragmatic reputation and has begun actively seeking solutions to Egypt’s socio-economic crisis. He also inserted a new, younger, level of leadership in the military. His rising popularity, increasing financial support from other regional powers and Egypt’s new direction on foreign affairs should not be ignored in light of recent industrial action by workers from various sectors or troubles with the judiciary. Indeed, Mursi remains under pressure to perform a miraculous transformation in the lives of ordinary working class Egyptians, an unrealistic election-time pledge that he has been unable to deliver in his first 100 days in power.

The Brotherhood is politically savvy and pragmatic, as evidenced by events of the last two years, and with numerous competing interests, they may be the only means of ensuring stability and progress in Egypt, particularly with post-uprising expectations of immediate political and socio-economic change. During the formation of the first constituent assembly in April and the dissolution of parliament in June by SCAF, the courts revealed themselves as political actors in Egypt’s transition. With no oversight from an elected parliament, an already controversial new draft constitution and continued, or rather increasing, pressure from the population for justice in the case of human rights abuses during the uprisings, Mursi finds himself in a tricky position. The current showdown between the judiciary and Mursi will be a test of his political power and will determine the nature of Egypt’s democracy in which an independent judiciary is vital.

Last modified on Thursday, 19 February 2015 10:18

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