CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi has won grudging respect from detractors in his first 100 days by sending the army back to barracks faster than anyone expected and raising Egypt’s international profile in several newsmaking visits abroad.
Yet his political fortunes and those of the Muslim Brotherhood which propelled him to power may well depend on his delivering on more mundane issues such as easing traffic congestion and bread and fuel shortages by October 7 as promised.
The image of the bespectacled civil engineer as Egypt’s “accidental president”, forced into the election by the disqualification of the Muslim Brotherhood’s preferred choice, has faded as the self-imposed deadline approaches.
Major tests have included managing the aftermath of violent protests at the U.S. embassy in September triggered by a film that denigrated Islam. Diplomats felt his response was slow, but it was apparently effective - damage to ties with Egypt’s biggest benefactor was minimal while Mursi earned credibility at home for appearing sensitive to popular anger.
Mursi has also mostly avoided getting bogged down in contentious issues such as the role Islamic law will play in the government and laws of post-Mubarak Egypt. That debate, which pitches secular-minded Egyptians against Islamists, is going on within the body writing a new constitution.
But Mursi’s successes have often been overshadowed in the Egyptian media by domestic problems, including industrial action that has served as a reminder of the deep economic problems that fuelled the uprising against predecessor President Hosni Mubarak.
“The expectations that he would deal with all injustices quickly created an atmosphere of hopes that are very high and unrealistic,” said Hassan Abu Taleb, a political consultant at the Al-Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies.
Meeting those expectations could prove crucial to the Brotherhood’s performance in a parliamentary election expected by early next year or sooner.
But there are no quick fixes in a nation with a sprawling bureaucracy riddled with corruption and health and education systems in need of overhaul. Egypt is ranked 101 out of 169 countries in the UNDP Human Development Index.
Two-fifths of the 83 million population live around the poverty line and depend on subsidies that are straining the treasury; one of Mursi’s first moves to was to seek a $4.8 billion IMF loan to support state finances.
Easing Cairo’s traffic was always a tall order, for example, and not helped by the fact that public transport workers were among those to go on strike.
“We voted for him on the basis that he would restore our rights,” said Ibrahim Awadallah, seeking relief from a state loan he grumbled taxi drivers were forced to take on to finance their new white cabs. “It’s time for him to meet his promises.”
Doctors in the run-down public health system are the latest workers to go on strike. Their demands include a pay rise in a sector where a graduate doctor can earn as little as 200 Egyptian pounds ($30) a month. “We see no reason for delay,” said Sameh Abdel Azeem, one of the strike organizers.
According to the online “Morsi Meter”, on day 97 the new president had achieved just four of 64 pre-election promises he said would be delivered on in his first 100 days in power.
Brotherhood politicians say the assessment is unfair. Even some of Mursi’s opponents say there has been a noticeable but hard-to-measure improvement in law and order, for example.
Mursi’s government has been trying to focus on the long term, seeking investment for mega-projects such as the Suez Canal corridor - aimed at increasing income from the waterway by turning it into a logistics and services hub.
“There are improvements, even if to a small degree. But the volume of the administrative corruption and the obstacles are greater than anyone can imagine,” said Walid Abdelghaffar, an engineer and member of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party recruited by the government to coordinate the canal plan.
Economists say the climate for such investment has improved since Mubarak-era generals who positioned themselves as a rival source of authority to Mursi were neutralized.
Even Mursi’s critics were impressed by the speed with which he was able to sideline Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak’s defense minister for two decades and head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that pushed him aside in February, 2011.
Tantawi and other top generals were sent into retirement in a surprise decree by Mursi just six weeks into his term.
Mursi has also injected new energy into Egypt’s foreign policy, jetting off to Addis Ababa, Beijing, Tehran, New York and Ankara while pursuing what he has described as a more “balanced” approach to diplomacy. Many Egyptians had viewed Mubarak as a lackey of Western or U.S. policy.
He has engaged the Shi’ite Islamist government in Tehran in an effort to end the civil war in Syria, a milestone in relations between states which broke ties after Iran’s 1979 revolution. He has offered reassurance to Israel that its peace treaty is safe, while publicly keeping its government at arms length, and deepened ties with Turkish Islamists.
Things have gone less smoothly with the United States, which gives $1.5 billion in military aid and other support each year. Congress has put a hold on $450 million of aid to help the new government, underlining a degree of unease in Washington about a relationship that has been a cornerstone of U.S. Mideast policy.
The protests outside the U.S. embassy on September 11 did not help. Police failed to stop the demonstrators from scaling the embassy walls and tearing down the American flag.
“As we understand it, he is someone who likes to deliberate, to take his time,” said one Western diplomat in Cairo, speaking on condition of anonymity to allow for a frank assessment of the attack.
“The leadership here, unlike Mubarak, has to take public sentiment into account. But it may have been they underestimated what had happened,” said the diplomat.
Mursi’s learning curve is likely to stay steep for some time.
Having promised to be a president for all, one of the measures of his success will be whether he opts to address the concerns of secular-minded Egyptians alarmed at the role of religion in the constitutional debate, said Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University.
Prominent non-Islamist politicians including Mohamed ElBaradei are alarmed at elements of the constitution being written by a body which they complain is dominated by Islamists. They say they will hold Mursi responsible for achieving a “balanced” constitution.
“It is not clear right now whether he has the willingness or the ability to govern through a national consensus rather than ruling as a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood,” Nafaa said. “The real test will be the coming constitution.”
($1 = 6.0930 Egyptian pounds)
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall