Resolving the conflict of powers
Mursi took office after a series of constitutional measures was adopted by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which ruled the country since the fall of former president Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011. SCAF's objective was to reduce and undermine the constitutional powers of the incoming president. The most notable of these measures was the Constitutional Declaration Addendum issued on 17 June 2012 against the backdrop of a controversial verdict issued by the Constitutional Court which dissolved the Egyptian parliament. The 'addendum' allowed SCAF to appropriate legislative powers and gave it the authority to establish a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution in the event that the assembly that had been appointed by parliament were dissolved. This new powers were in addition to the military council's powers over the affairs of the armed forces. Mursi attempted to get parliament reconvene, but he was attacked by the Constitutional Court and certain judicial departments allied to SCAF. As a result, his attempt failed.
It was no secret that SCAF has acted like a partner to the president. It is clear that the process of forming a new government under Prime Minister Hisham Qandil (who was appointed to his post on 24 July by President Mursi) did not happen without SCAF's direct intervention. The ambiguity about who exactly were the powers that were steering the Egyptian state resulted in criticism against Mursi by the media and political parties that had been unhappy with having a president who was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Just when it seemed Mursi was attempting to deal with the question of this duplication of powers, the country was shocked by a terrorist attack which targeted an army checkpoint on Egypt's borders with Gaza and Israel on Sunday, 5 August. The president was not only stunned by the loss of sixteen Egyptian soldiers but also by the fact that none of those soldiers was able to fire a single bullet at the attackers. The following day, despite objections from his protectors and from Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi – defence minister, commander-in-chief of the armed forces and head of SCAF – Mursi visited northern Sinai where the attack took place. It is worth highlighting that, during his two visits to the location of the terrorist attack in North Sinai on August 6 and 10, the president was not exactly comfortable.
During these visits, Tantawi and chief of staff Sami Anan accompanied Mursi. Both men acted as if they were the people in charge of the situation and the country with President Mursi being just a high-profile guest. They also did not demonstrate a sense of concern that matched the magnitude of the attack. The president detected a certain laxity in the security of the area and observed the negligence of soldiers who were tasked with maintaining the country's security in general. Above all, Mursi felt the depth of the crisis surrounding the relationship of security and military authorities with Sinai residents.
Upon his return to Cairo after his first visit, Mursi decided to take the necessary measures to resolve the political situation which he had been faced with and to return the army to its natural and crucial role in safeguarding the country's borders, security and resources.
Mursi announced the first bundle of presidential decrees on 8 August. These included the dismissals of the head of the General Intelligence Service, the commander of the Republican Guard, the commander of the Presidential Guard, the director of Cairo Security and the governor of North Sinai. Mursi also demanded that SCAF dismissed the commander of the military police, Hamdi Badeen. Some of these officials were sacked because they were seen as being responsible laxity in security and intelligence operations in Sinai, while others were sent packing because of their involvement with certain circumstances surrounding the soldiers' funeral which was due to be attended by the president himself. The funeral was dominated by anti-revolutionary and anti-Islamist groups and were characterised by verbal attacks that were humiliating towards the prime minister, former presidential candidate Abdul Mon'im Abul-Fotouh, leaders of An-Nour Party and other personalities who became famous during the revolution. The president concluded that there had been plans underway to insult him had he attended the funeral.
Mursi's first package of decrees shocked everyone: the military command, political parties and the Egyptian street, but the public support for the decrees, as per the original text) was very encouraging. On 11 August, the text of a new constitutional declaration was prepared. It revoked the addendum issued by SCAF in June and effectively granted the president, in parliament's absence, legislative and executive powers. The announcement was published the next morning in the Official Gazette, and it was followed by a second package of decisions. This package appointed Major-General Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi as minister of defence and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and Major-General Sidqi Subhi as chief of staff. Tantawi and Anan were retired from their posts and appointed as military advisers to the president. The commanders of the navy, air defence forces and the air force – who were more senior than Sisi – were relieved of their duties and appointed to civilian posts instead.
In two quick moves Mursi removed all confusion about Egypt's political status during the transitional period and about who was really ruling the country. In fact, it is fair to say that until a new constitution is drafted and ratified through a referendum, Mursi has more powers than Mubarak did.
Rapid moves on the foreign affairs front
As expected, Mursi's first foreign visit was to Saudi Arabia from 10 to 11 July. There are many compelling reasons for Saudi Arabia to be Mursi's first destination in the Arab neighbourhood. Saudi Arabia and Egypt have traditional relations that date back to before the creation of the Egyptian republic; these ties were only briefly disturbed during the Nasser era. Significantly, the Egyptian revolution, the overthrow of Mubarak and the assumption of the presidency by an Islamist figure were sources of concern for the Saudi Kingdom; a free and democratic Egyptian state with an Islamic leadership could pose a challenge to the credibility of Saudi Arabia's political system. The Egyptian president was not only seeking to reassure his traditional Arab partners in Saudi Arabia, but also the millions of Egyptian workers in that country.
On 11 August, Mursi received the Qatari Emir, Hamad Al Thani, who arrived in Cairo for a one-day visit. It was clear that the short visit, during which the Qatari leader announced the deposit of two billion US dollars into the coffers of the Central Bank of Egypt to help Egypt's public finances, aimed at emphasising Qatar's relations with Egypt's new regime and leadership. However, the fact that this visit came just one day before Mursi's crucial presidential decrees sparked controversy in Egyptian political circles regarding the depth of the relations between Doha and the new Egyptian presidency.
Within a few weeks, form 14 to 16 August, Mursi was in Makkah again, this time to participate in the emergency meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) which had been called by the Saudi king. It was expected that the Syrian crisis would top the agenda of the meeting. What was unexpected, however, was that the new Egyptian president – an OIC newcomer – would propose an initiative to deal with the crisis. Mursi did not present a detailed project, but he suggested the formation of a committee of the big four states which are directly involved in the Syrian crisis: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran so that they might work on finding a solution. The surprising element was not the proposal itself, but that it sought to included Iran as a member of the proposed committee.
The logic upon which the Egyptian proposal was founded is simple, but not uncreative. The initiative would allow Iran to become part of the solution as opposed to being part of the problem. But since the Egyptians had not carried out the necessary diplomatic consultations with the parties concerned prior to launching the initiative, the response – especially of Iran and Saudi Arabia – was neither quick nor clear. Perhaps some time is needed and initial talks must be conducted before it becomes clear whether the Egyptian scenario of ending the Syrian crisis is to be embraced and implemented.
Mursi's giant leap on the foreign policy front was his double trip (from 27 to 30 August) which included a three-day visit to China and a stop in Tehran for a few hours on his way back. The primary goal for visiting China was economic; this explains the large number of Egyptian businesspeople who accompanied the president on his journey. The political implications were no secret either: this was Mursi's first visit outside the Arab world to a major state. Most observers had predicted that his first international visit would be to the United States, but the Egyptian president headed to China instead. It was, perhaps, meant to emphasise that Egypt's new manoeuvring on the international level will be open and diverse, and that Washington should get used to the independent nature of Egypt's foreign decisions.
His short visit to Tehran, which sparked uproar immediately it had been announced, was to attend the opening session of the Non-Aligned Movement summit and to hand over the presidency of the coalition to Iran. Mursi delivered a fiery speech in the conference that won Arab and international plaudits. After voicing support for the Syrian people and their revolution, he directly attacked the Syrian regime and called on President Bashar al-Asad to step down. In fact, Mursi did not hesitate to place the struggles of the Palestinian and Syrian peoples for freedom within the same context. And because the Egyptian leader was speaking in Tehran, the Syrian regime's key ally, there remains no doubt that while his visit may end the long break between the two countries, the new Egyptian approach towards Iran will not be based on turning a blind eye to any disputable issues or any collisions of interests between the two countries – whether it is the Syrian or any other issue.
New president, new policy
There is no doubt that, in the first two months of his presidency, Muhammad Mursi succeeded in restructuring his role and position. It seems like he has an earnest desire to rebuild the state's entire body politic and its foreign policies. His recent actions – which are equally attentive to internal and external issues – reflect his awareness of the importance of working on both fronts simultaneously in order to shape the new regime's legitimacy and legality.
It is necessary, however, to be cautious in interpreting Mursi's domestic policies and to be conservative about expectations of him. Mursi's problem was not with the Egyptian army or its commanders, but rather with the double authority forged by SCAF's measures – taken prior to his taking office. Therefore, what the president did to resolve this double authority issue should not be seen as an attempt to weaken the army – which the rumour mill regards as the main obstacle preventing the Muslim Brotherhood from taking full control of the government and state. In fact, Mursi's aim is to strengthen the powers and capacities of the army, which he believes were reduced under Mubarak and because of the army's engagement in politics.
The belief that Mursi's measures aimed to terminate the close links between the military and the administration of the state is a hasty one. The overlap between military and state administration affairs on one hand, and the involvement of the army in sectors of productive economy, trade, and construction on the other, have been so deeply and broadly nested that it would require decades to carefully consider the different aspects of this overlap and to rebuild military institutions and the Egyptian state on new foundations.
What is significant currently is that the Egyptian armed forces now have a new leadership that is aware of the dimensions and implications of the Egyptian revolution. And while the new army command declared its commitment to political legitimacy and embarked on a military reform programme, the president began to fulfil his promises of restructuring the Egyptian presidency as a multi-spectral institution instead of it being embodied in a single individual.
On the foreign policy front, one should also not overestimate Mursi's consecutive small steps. His visits to Saudi Arabia, China and Iran have drawn mixed reactions: while some observers interpreted his visit to Saudi Arabia and the decisive position towards the Syrian issue which he declared in Tehran as evidence that Egypt's new regime will not change its policy of alignment to the US camp and its regional allies, others felt that going to China and making a stop in Iran proved that Mursi would take Egypt into an anti-American camp.
In reality, Mursi seems deliberately to stand in the grey zone, at least to a limited extent. What the Egyptian leader is doing in his early days in the presidency is to maintain previous alliances while opening up a new list of choices, regionally and internationally.
* This article was originally published in Arabic by the AlJazeera Centre for Studies and was translated by the Afro-Middle East Centre. It is published here in terms of a partnership agreement between the two institutes