Morsi faces test on Egyptian economy


The new president, a second choice fielded by his Islamist organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood, is defying the critics, writes ROULA KHALAF

A FEW months before Egypt’s presidential election in June, one of the country’s leading businessmen quipped that it would take a crazy man to want to lead the Arab world’s most populous country.

It made sense to be cynical at that time. No one knew where Egypt was heading or what a military hungry for power had in mind for the future. It was not even clear what the president’s job description would be.

Less than three months into that job, however, Mohamed Morsi is defying the sceptics.

He was dismissed as a weak candidate – a second choice fielded by his Islamist organisation, the ambitious Muslim Brotherhood. However Morsi has declared himself to be boss, pushing aside senior generals and lifting Egyptian spirits with the promise of a more assertive foreign policy role.

The real test of his presidency will be in fixing Egypt’s faltering economy – a long-term and exceedingly difficult project. In the meantime, he has created a feel-good factor with political – if still only symbolic – gestures on the international stage.

He was cheered at home for travelling to a summit in Tehran, an ally of the Syrian regime, an event which he used to blast Bashar al-Assad. Also praised was his much-publicised trip to China, which took place a few weeks before his planned trip to the US – the more usual destination of an Egyptian president.

It is true that Egypt’s revolution last year was about domestic oppression, not Hosni Mubarak’s foreign policy. However, popular disenchantment was exacerbated by the sense of a loss of prestige for a nation that had been traditionally leader of the Arab world.

Is Morsi charting a radically different course for Egypt? Possibly. For now, the new president is trying to please all – raising the country’s profile and signalling more balance in Cairo’s foreign dealings but without appearing to jeopardise the most crucial relationships, not least that with the US.

The Muslim Brotherhood is no fan of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and has repeatedly said it wants the agreement “reviewed”.

As with other controversial policies advocated by the group, though, the Islamists conveniently say there is no rush for a change of policy, a patience that works well for Morsi.

Every move by the Egyptian president has been carefully calibrated to avoid controversy. It makes sense for Egypt to position itself as a possible interlocutor with Tehran at a time of rising tensions between Shia Iran and the Sunni powers of the Gulf. Before he set foot in Iran, a visit that was designed to pass the rotating presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement, Morsi had already visited Saudi Arabia, whose financial support for the Egyptian economy is critical.

Although he picked Beijing over Washington for his first high-profile trip, he had already hosted US secretary of state Hillary Clinton in Cairo.

This past weekend, moreover, Morsi attended meetings with a large US business delegation, earning encouraging words from Thomas Nides, a US deputy secretary of state, who declared himself impressed with the president and his “wholesome” vision for Egypt.

It is unlikely that Egypt’s new leader knows exactly today where he wants to take Egypt – and to what extent he can afford any dramatic change of direction. Fighting its domestic battles will have to be his priority, but a clever balancing act in his first few months has given him some breathing space.

Ezzedine Fishere, a former Egyptian diplomat, says so far Morsi has provided signals, not actions. “Those are signals of a more active role and a slightly different role from what we’re used to seeing,” he says. “They could be signals only, or they could be followed by actions.”

Will Egypt seriously push for a solution to Syria through the Morsi- suggested quartet (made up of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey)? How will Egypt’s relations with China evolve after the visit?

“Talk, positions, visits, that’s the easy part,” says Fishere. “Where is the policy? We don’t know yet.” – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012)