3Qs: Analyzing Egypt’s presidential election and its future outlook

Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was named the winner of Egypt’s first free presidential election last week and was sworn into office on Saturday. We asked polit­ical sci­ence pro­fessor Denis Sul­livan, director of Northeastern’s Middle East Center for Peace, Cul­ture and Devel­op­ment, to explain what his victory would mean for the future of Egypt.

Egypt’s military rulers, who assumed power after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, have dissolved the Islamist-led Parliament and made a “constitutional addendum,” effectively stripping the incoming president of many of his powers. What must Morsi do in order to become more than just a figurehead?

The one constant in Egypt’s ever-changing political landscape is that it is ever changing. Yes, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces — the military junta running Egypt since Mubarak’s ouster — dissolved Parliament, but only after the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that one-third of the Parliament was illegitimate. Ever since the court ruling, there has been a power struggle, with SCAF closing down the Parliament, literally shutting the building and preventing democratically elected members from entering, and the Muslim Brotherhood pushing to allow the “legitimate” two-thirds of Parliament to keep their seats.

SCAF also has “declared” (or dictated) that the incoming president will have greatly reduced powers. But under whose authority does SCAF make such declarations? It is a military junta: it is neither elected nor accountable to any power; it is not a lawmaker as such, even if it makes laws out of thin air that only benefit SCAF rather than the Egyptian people. Thus, it rules only to the extent that “the streets” accept its legitimacy to rule.

What Morsi must do is simply to push forward, nudging and pressing SCAF to return to the proverbial barracks (though we all know that the military will retain sweeping powers). He must also appoint a Prime Minister and Cabinet; get a Constituent Assembly in place to write Egypt’s next Constitution; and make sure Parliament is seated, two-thirds or all of it, as soon as possible.

Morsi resigned from the Brotherhood last Sunday and pledged to be “a president for all Egyptians,” including a large sect of Coptic Christians who supported his presidential rival. But does Morsi truly want to build national unity, or will he use his new role to impose religious rule?

My belief is that Morsi wants to build national unity within what Egyptians are calling a “civil state” (what we might call a “secular state”). I believe he will not, and indeed he cannot, impose religious rule even though I think he would still like to pursue that path over a long-term process. The Muslim Brotherhood has fought for legitimacy and political as well as social impact since 1928.  It has the long view of history, and indeed that long view has prevailed with Morsi’s and the Brotherhood’s successes in both the presidency and the Parliament (where 45 percent of elected officials are Muslim Brothers).

Morsi also talks of appointing up to six vice presidents, including at least one woman and at least one Coptic Christian. This to me is a sign of his interest in building national unity even if he does not yet fully understand how to do so. Token appointments will not promote national unity — but, they are a good starting point. The proof will be how Morsi actually allows the diverse populations of Egypt — devout Christians, devout Muslims, secular Muslims and Christians, men and women of all ages and social classes and political “stripes” — to have a voice in policy making and economic development.

How do you think Morsi’s presidential appointment would impact the relationship between Egypt and Israel? Do you think he would push for revisions in the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty?

Morsi will not seek to end Egypt’s peace with Israel. No Egyptian President would do this. At the same time, any new president of Egypt would push for revisions in the 1979 Peace Treaty. The terms are not always in Egypt’s favor. The most notable example is the below-market sale of Egypt’s natural gas to Israel. Egyptians have been complaining for years about this imbalance. Another example is in the field of security cooperation between Egypt and Israel, which Egyptians feel benefit Israel more than Egypt.

Morsi has a record of anti-Zionist rhetoric and I imagine he will occasionally spout anti-Israel rhetoric.  Still, he will cooperate with the Jewish state as an elected official who, on Saturday, took an oath of office to uphold Egyptian law and treaties and other international agreements. Morsi has far bigger problems to tackle than to take on a fool’s errand of ending a peace treaty that returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt and brought tremendous amount of American aid. These issues include pushing the military back to the barracks; fighting poverty and developing the economy, including welcoming back tourists and foreign investors; fighting corruption among still-powerful political and economic “middle men,” and fixing broken health care, educational, transportation and health care systems. Israel just isn’t that important in the overall scheme of Egypt’s real problems.