BEIRUT

Middle East

Egyptians fear Mursi becoming authoritarian, reminiscent of Mubarak

  • A girl stands next to an Egyptian flag as she watches a performance on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

CAIRO: As Egypt’s new President Mohammad Mursi strikes an assertive pose on the world stage, some Egyptians fear they may have replaced one authoritarian leader with another. Critics say Mursi – the nation’s first democratically elected president – seeks a monopoly over decision-making and has accepted an aura of invincibility bestowed by the official media.

Fueling the unease is Mursi’s failure to deliver on any of his key campaign promises, including resolution in his first 100 days in office of five of the nation’s most pressing problems: deteriorating security, shortages of fuel and subsidized bread, inadequate garbage collection and traffic.

Mursi, who in June became the first Islamist ever to occupy the top post after longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak was ousted by a popular uprising last year, faces extremely high expectations.

He has risen to power at a time when Egyptians have found the voice to demand social justice, freedoms and jobs after decades of perceived oppression, inequality and exploitation at the hands of Mubarak’s regime and a small clique of powerful businessmen.

The U.S.-educated engineer made a splash Wednesday at the U.N. General Assembly in New York where he passionately appealed for an end to the bloodshed in Syria, help for the Palestinians to establish their state and efforts to rid the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction.

Addressing his Islamist constituency at home, he delivered a strong condemnation of a crude film that surfaced on the Internet this month, portraying Islam’s Prophet Mohammad as a womanizer and a buffoon.

But while Mursi has made an impression in the global arena, he is facing difficulties on the domestic front.

“We changed a leader but not the regime,” said Negad Borai, a prominent lawyer and rights activist.

“It is difficult to accurately assess his performance after he spent only three months in office, but he clearly has no vision and is going about governance haphazardly.”

Underscoring those fears, lawyers representing Mursi obtained a court ruling to shut down a private television station whose owner ranted against the president and the Muslim Brotherhood on air. The station’s owner and a newspaper editor are facing criminal charges.

Mursi also did not object to the imprisonment of a Christian for “insulting the president” – a seldom-used charge.

An insider at the presidential palace, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information, says Mursi was not involved personally in a flurry of court cases against his critics, but the proceedings were initiated by lawyers from the Brotherhood or closely linked to the group.

He also said that decision-making is restricted to Mursi and a small group of senior Brotherhood leaders who meet at the president’s home in an upscale suburb in eastern Cairo.

Alaa al-Aswani, a bestselling novelist and rights activist, wrote Tuesday in the independent newspaper Al-Masry al-Youm that the time had come to take Mursi to task.

He pointed to a series of cases in which police were accused of abusing suspects, although nothing on the scale of the torture under Mubarak’s regime. He also noted Mursi had secured the support of the powerful state-owned media. He also charged that Mursi was suppressing freedom of expression and had failed to deliver on his promises of inclusion by allowing Islamists to dominate the drafting of a new constitution.

“The picture is now worrying,” he wrote. “It’s like nothing has changed in Egypt after the revolution except for the identity of the president – Mubarak is gone and Mursi has come,”

Mursi, who rose to the leadership post from relative obscurity, insists the fears are unfounded.

“There is just no chance that anyone will become a dictator again,” he said recently. He also has expressed willingness to tolerate opposition and pledged not to try to remove the freedoms won by Egyptians after Mubarak was toppled in February 2011.

“Everyone has the right to express his views on the president and the government,” he said.

In a move to break with the past, he has decided to break with the decades-old custom of hanging a portrait of the president on the walls of all schools, government offices and universities.

Still, the state media’s construction of a personality cult portraying Mursi as something of a superman is similar to the star treatment given Mubarak, and Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel-Nasser before him.

State-owned newspapers have largely stopped mentioning Mursi’s promise to resolve a series of domestic problems in his first 100 days in office.

He was reminded of the pledge in a television interview aired Wednesday. Asked what he planned to do when the 100 days are up Oct. 8, he said: “I will be honest. I will tell the people what has been achieved and what could not be.”

In a separate interview on state television last week, the interviewer did not interrupt Mursi, challenge his answers or deliver even the mildest of criticism of his policies. Mursi also was asked adoringly how he managed to work round the clock without getting tired. “I carry out my duties to the best of my abilities,” a clearly flattered Mursi replied with a smile.

After one of his major foreign policy speeches this month, Egypt’s official Middle East News Agency prophesied that his words ushered a “new era” in Egypt’s foreign policy.

“He can put a stop to all this if he wants,” said youth leader and media activist Shadi al-Adl. “I take his inaction to mean satisfaction with how the media is treating him.”

Mursi’s constantly growing motorcade also has been a painful reminder to many Egyptians of the pain they endured for years every time Mubarak traveled in Cairo, leaving them stuck in massive traffic jams for hours. The new president made a promising start, traveling in small convoys that caused minimal disruption. But the motorcade has grown to comprise as many as 30 vehicles, with scores of black-clad policemen and sharp shooters deployed before his arrival.

He also has been offering the Friday prayers at a different mosque every week, inconveniencing worshippers who have to go through security checks and causing traffic delays.

The heavy security around the president is a sharp contrast to his dramatic gesture hours after he was declared president, when he opened his jacket to thousands of supporters gathered at Cairo’s Tahrir Square, birthplace of last year’s uprising, to show that he was not wearing a bulletproof jacket.

“Everything is gradually returning to what it used to be,” political activist Ahmad Badawi said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 29, 2012, on page 12.
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