The sentencing of Hosni Mubarak has put Ahmed Shafik on the defensive in the presidential race, but will Mohammed Morsi have what it takes to press his advantage? It was a good verdict for the Brotherhood.
Not only was Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s despised ex-dictator, sentenced to life in prison, bribery charges against his equally loathed sons were dropped while a handful of regime trigger-men, facing murder counts, walked away with a slap on the wrist. The result was a torrent of outrage against anything associated with the old government, including Ahmed Shafik, a Mubarak crony and the rival candidate in this month’s presidential ballot to senior Brotherhood member Mohammed Morsi.
Nothing could awaken the revolutionary gestalt faster than a reminder of how deeply corrupted the Egyptian government remains after three decades of Mubarak’s rule. Within hours after Mubarak was sentenced for taking bribes and ordering a lethal response to peaceful protests last year, Mohammed Morsi declared that he was at one with the revolution while implying that Shafik, as Mubarak’s last prime minister, withheld evidence that would have convicted the regime of murder. If an insinuation like that can’t keep Shafik on the defensive, nothing can.
Historians may note that it took a miscarriage of justice to salvage the Morsi campaign from not one but several occasions of inept decision-making. An accidental contender after the Brotherhood’s first choice was forced from the race on legal grounds, the field may now be clear for Morsi to become the first president of a newly democratized Egypt. The question is how long he can hold it together.
The next president will face a Gordian knot of fateful challenges in which the resolution of one will create another. Increased spending to stimulate economic growth, for example, which the military-led interim government has already tried without success, will drive borrowing costs higher while spending cuts will stifle demand and destabilize the country politically. To complicate things further, the Brotherhood is on the record in support of the very neoliberal policies – privatization, free trade, currency deregulation – that are associated with the former regime’s endemic corruption. Should a President Morsi authorize the sale of a state-run bank, for example, he may please the International Monetary Fund and its conditional offer of a $3 billion bailout package, though he will certainly antagonize a large share of the electorate.
Morsi, his supporters point out, will have at his disposal the Brotherhoods’ vast resources, including the fraternity of white-collar professionals that forms its backbone. Himself a respected engineer who did time in Mubarak’s jails, Morsi is nonetheless an unspectacular public presence at a time when Egypt is deeply divided and in need of inspired leadership. It would take a leader of Nasser’s charisma, the healing powers of a Mandela and the guile of a Franklin Roosevelt to rebuild Egypt before the end of the president’s first four-year term. Since no one person can claim possession of such qualities, it would be all the more urgent for the new president to form a broad coalition so he can leverage talent from the whole spectrum of Egyptian demography. Given the magnitude of the task ahead, he’ll need as much bandwidth as possible.