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June 26, 2012, Tuesday

From prison to presidency

This column is not about the possible next career move of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish prime minister who spent a couple of months in prison in the 1990s and, according to many, has set himself a new target: the Turkish presidency in 2014.

It’s about Mohamed Morsi, the new Egyptian president and the first Islamist elected as head of an Arab state. Mr. Morsi also spent some time in prison, although not very long, in 2008 and 2011. Now he is the man who is expected to bring a deeply divided country back together again, strike a deal with the armed forces, revitalize the ailing economy and carefully reformulate Egypt’s position in several regional conflicts. It is a cliché to say that the challenges facing the new president are huge.

Many are afraid he won’t manage. Because he simply does not have the required capacities and charisma to do so or because the military won’t let him. In an unflattering portrait, the Brookings Institution’s Shadi Hamid described Mr. Morsi as “an unlikely accident of history,” the substitute candidate after the more appealing Muslim Brotherhood (MB) contender Khairat El Shater was disqualified from the presidential race. The new president is seen by Hamid and many others as someone without a particularly distinctive set of views, a MB loyalist and efficient operator behind the scenes. Not a leader able and willing to build consensus. Speculation about Mr. Morsi’s abilities will probably go on for some time, but the graduate of the University of Southern California does not have much time to prove that he is the right man in the right place at the right time.

The first immediate hurdle to take is where Mr. Morsi should be sworn in as president. Normally, that place would be the People’s Assembly, the Egyptian parliament. The problem is that the assembly, dominated by the MB, has recently been dissolved by the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC). According to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), that means that the oath will have to be taken in front of the SCC. Until now Mr. Morsi has refused to do so because he correctly interprets the change of venue as giving in to the judicial coup that has deprived the country of its newly elected legislature. According to many MB leaders and non-MB activists, insisting on taking the oath before parliament would also send the message to the SCAF that Mr. Morsi rejects the constitutional amendments presented by the military right after the presidential elections, which strip the president of many of his powers.

The oath taking place is only one, be it highly symbolic, of the confrontations ahead.

Mr. Morsi does not only need to fight off the military without raising tensions too high. He also has to show that he wants to be an inclusive president and not a partisan enforcer of the MB’s vision of Egypt. He has to reach out to the liberals and leftists who voted for him in the second round of the presidential elections because they were prepared to do everything to prevent the other candidate, Mr. Shafik, the last prime minister under Hosni Mubarak, from reinstating the old regime. Mr. Morsi has already indicated that he wants women and Christian Copts in the new government, two groups that fear the Islamic agenda that Mr. Morsi has always stood for.

History is asking a lot from Mr. Morsi. As one observer put it: He has to reinvent himself to become a leader with a clear vision. The latest news from Cairo suggests that the new president realizes the enormous obstacles in front of him and the need to overcome some of them quickly. On Monday, the Al-Shorouk newspaper reported that the future government will be led by a politician who is not a member of the MB. One of the apparent candidates is Mohamed ElBaradei, well respected in the West and by Egyptian liberals. There are speculations that Mr. Morsi wants to involve two former presidential candidates, the left populist Hamdeen Sabahi and the Muslim liberal Abdul Moneim Abou’l-Futouh, in his plans for the cabinet and the policies that should be implemented.

A few weeks ago Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of the Tunisian Islamist party and a leading figure among Arab Islamists, advised Mr. Morsi to share power with other pro-reform forces because it would be his only way to take on the old regime and the military. Let’s hope the new Egyptian president got the message and acts accordingly.

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