CAIRO — Power and water outages are common across Egypt. Crime is rampant. The value of the currency is slipping.
Egypt’s President Mohammed Mursi has yet to offer anything concrete on how he plans to tackle some of the nation’s most intractable problems. Instead, he is taking steps to shore up his Muslim Brotherhood group ahead of new parliamentary elections and is trying to project himself as a charismatic Arab leader standing up to authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.
Mursi campaigned on a package of promises that included political inclusion, freedom of expression and a swift end to paralysing traffic congestion, skyrocketing crime and the scourge of garbage uncollected.
Yet in his first two months in office, he has appeared to focus his attention elsewhere. That has raised questions about his priorities at a time when Egyptians’ expectations are higher than ever following the ouster last year of Hosni Mubarak, whose authoritarian regime was widely seen as favouring the rich over the poor during three decades in power.
While Mursi has done little of substance to address domestic woes so far, he has tried to make his mark on foreign policy. It is a realm where there is little accountability because most of Egypt’s 83 million people are too preoccupied with making ends meet.
“Experience has shown that foreign policy brings him more success and popularity than if he fulfilled his promises to the people,” said political scientist Mustafa Kamel El-Sayed of Cairo University.
The Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, rejected as baseless the claim that the president assumed a high profile on foreign policy at a time when progress on domestic issues was slow.
“The president does not speak of the rights of the Palestinians or the people of Syria to bolster his popularity,” said Nader Omran of the party’s foreign relations committee. “He does this out of principle,” he said.
Mursi also won praise for standing up to the military generals who ruled Egypt for 17 months after Mubarak was ousted. He ordered the retirement of the country’s top two generals, who had headed the ruling military council that took over from Mubarak. That move was welcomed by the liberals and leftists who were largely behind last year’s uprising.
But many Egyptians are still looking for improvements in their day-to-day lives.
“To me, as an Egyptian citizen, I am only concerned with what impacts on daily life, things like power cuts and the rights of the poor,” said Gamal Eid, a prominent activist and rights lawyer. The country is suffering power and water outages with a frequency not seen in decades and during intense summer heat. People’s patience has been pushed to the limit as repeated promises of a quick end to the problem do not materialise.
Opening himself for criticism, Mursi has called on Egyptians to ration their use of electricity to reduce pressure on the grid and his prime minister urged people to wear cotton clothes to cope better with the heat at home when electricity is out. The latter suggestion drew ridicule from the media and on social media networks, with the US-trained engineer nicknamed after a famous Egyptian cotton wear company.
Many Egyptians say they do feel safer on the streets after an unprecedented wave of violent crime terrorised the nation in the months that followed Mubarak’s ouster in February, 2011. However, armed robbery, kidnapping for ransom, car theft and burglaries are too commonplace for a nation accustomed to heavy policing and deterrence through harsh treatment, including torture, for criminal suspects.
The Egyptian currency, the pound, was trading on Wednesday at around 6.10 to the US dollar, down more than 1 per cent since Mursi took office in late June. While the drop is modest, it is significant because the pound has traditionally enjoyed the central bank’s vigorous support when under pressure.
It also comes at a time of intense speculation that the International Monetary Fund may ask Egypt to devalue the pound as part of a package of painful reforms to set the economy on a better course and secure a loan of $4.8 billion.
More worrying, the economy has been hard hit by a drop in productivity and a slump in tourism, a labour-intensive industry that is a major source of revenue and jobs. Thousands of businesses are struggling or have folded because of the tenuous security or the endless series of strikes and protests.
Mursi made his first major foreign policy speech on Wednesday, calling on Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s regime to step down and warning Iran against interfering in Arab affairs. His comments signalled an attempt to reassert Cairo’s leadership in the Middle East.
His focus on foreign policy began in Iran last month with a surprisingly hard-hitting speech during a summit of the Nonaligned Movement in which he voiced his support for Syrian rebels against Assad’s ‘oppressive’ regime.
He continued in the same vein on Wednesday.
“I tell the Syrian regime that there is still a chance to halt the bloodshed,” he said. “Don’t listen to the voices that tempt you to stay because you will not be there for much longer. There is no room for further delaying a decision that will stop the bloodshed,” he added.
Mursi has also worked in office to secure key positions for his comrades in the Muslim Brotherhood, the most powerful political group to emerge from last year’s uprising.
With a parliamentary election expected this year or early in 2013, analysts say Mursi appears to be trying to ensure the Brotherhood sweeps the vote, just as it did in the first election after Mubarak’s ouster. The former military rulers dissolved the legislature in June after a court ruled that a third of its members were illegally elected.
Mursi has given Brotherhood members five Cabinet positions, none of which is particularly high profile. But they are all posts that could be used to curry favor with the electorate.
The Brotherhood controls the information ministry and with it, the state media, a powerful tool in influencing public opinion. They also have the higher education portfolio with control over universities, a traditional recruitment ground for the fundamentalist group. The youth portfolio could give the group an even wider area for recruitment.
The labour portfolio allows the Brotherhood access to labour unions, traditionally the domain of leftist and liberal groups, in which the group has been seeking to gain a foothold. Housing gives the group a key service sector that millions of poor Egyptians look to for construction of lower-cost housing.
Mursi has also made Brotherhood members or sympathisers editors of some 50 state publications, a move that harked back to the Mubarak era when editors of major publications heaped praise on the president and his regime while suppressing dissent.
That prompted questions about Mursi’s own commitment to democracy and freedom of expression. The appointments were made by parliament’s upper house, a chamber dominated by the Brotherhood and other Islamists.