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Egypt Unwrapped

Mursi’s Tragicomedy

Egypt's President Mohamed Mursi fluffed his lines during a speech at the Koerber foundation in Berlin.  ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images
Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi fluffed his lines during a speech at the Koerber foundation in Berlin. ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images
Whoever became Egypt’s first Arab Spring president would have faced almost insurmountable challenges in realizing a stable and successful transition. Egypt’s uprising emerged from a broad range of grievances and its transitional leaders have a diverse selection of ideologies and goals, many of which predate January 25, 2011.

Even bearing all this in mind, there is a growing consensus that Mohamed Mursi is universally failing as a leader. A quick glance at social media reveals that a vast comedic industry has grown up around the Egyptian president. Before his election, Mursi became known as the “spare tire,” a reference to his not being the Muslim Brotherhood’s first-choice candidate.

Not only do his opponents see him as a failure, but Mursi has also become a farcical figure, particularly as a result of foreign state visits. Egyptians on social media point out a pattern of natural disasters that appear to afflict every country Mursi visits, leading them to lament the effect that his continued presence in Egypt is having. For example, during his recent trip to Russia the country suffered an earthquake while Brazil witnessed severe storms.

But it was on a visit to Germany that Mursi’s ability to speak English coherently came under fire as he infamously told a German-speaking audience—in a confusing combination of English and Arabic—that “gas and alcohol don’t mix,” in a seemingly irrelevant reference to drunk driving. Members of the audience were visibly perplexed and amused in turn. The line “Mursi, is that English?” from a popular Egyptian play, was posted and reposted all over social media.

Although the ability to poke fun at the president is normal in democracies and probably cathartic in Egypt’s case, there is clearly a lack of respect for Mursi both personally and politically that indicates a critical credibility deficit. Jokes aside, this is a serious issue for a president who must undertake such massive and comprehensive reforms to prevent Egypt becoming a failed state.

There have been various suggestions that Egypt has only months of wheat reserves and that a shortfall in energy will lead to extensive power cuts during the summer, even more severe than in the past few years. Fuel and food are the two major subsidized commodities in Egypt, so not only are they becoming scarce but providing them is driving the country ever closer to bankruptcy. One of the major decisions facing Mursi, then, is the issue of subsidies reform—and it is this issue that has delayed closing the deal on the IMF loan over and over again. It is a decision that cannot be further delayed with summer fast approaching.

However, Mursi knows he does not have sufficient trust and credibility to remove a system of subsidies that has been in place for decades and that many Egyptians see as a right rather than a gift. Previous attempts have been reversed after strong negative reactions from the public. His image coming into the elections and his actions since becoming president have meant that Mursi has never built up enough credibility to earn the trust of the Egyptian public.

This could have been remedied by building up a portfolio of successful reforms and decisions. But the insistence on dominating the political process, such as the drafting of the new constitution, the failure to include opposition voices, and Mursi’s erratic and often farcical behavior, have undermined the political legitimacy that is crucial for the implementation of necessary reforms. The Muslim Brotherhood’s foray into power appears doomed, and Egypt’s revolution along with them.

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Elizabeth Monier
Dr Elizabeth Monier is a Research Fellow at the University of Warwick where her work focuses broadly on democracy, human security and citizenship in the Middle East. She specializes in Egyptian affairs, sectarian conflict and identity politics. She holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge and has held fellowships at LSE and the German Institute of Global and Area Studies.

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