As Mohammed Morsi makes his first visit to the United States since becoming Egypt’s first democratically elected president to attend the annual opening sessions of the United Nations General Assembly, an Egyptian court has sentenced 14 Islamists to death-by-hanging and four to life imprisonment for attacks against soldiers and border police in the Sinai Peninsula last year. The court said the men, members of a terrorist group called Tawheed and Jihad, killed three policemen, an army officer, and a civilian in the 2011 attacks.
When the verdicts were announced, some of the defendants unleashed verbal attacks on Morsi, whom they saw as being responsible for their incarceration.
“Morsi is an infidel and those who follow him are infidels,” shouted one defendant according to eyewitnesses.
The scenario playing out was a reminder of the challenges facing the new president who was originally a compromise candidate but who has moved to solidify his position in both Egypt and in the international arena. Morsi, a long-time member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was chosen after the Islamist group’s first candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, was disqualified.
“He’s not really popular, but he’s definitely getting more respect,” Maye Qasm, a professor of political science at the American University of Cairo, told The Media Line. “Initially, people thought he was in the Muslim Brotherhood’s pocket, but now he’s asserted his own authority above and beyond the Muslim brothers. He is influenced by them but he’s not the puppet he appeared to be. He’s gaining respect as he’s focusing more on security which is a big issue since the revolution.”
The huge expanse of the Sinai desert on the borders of Egypt, Israel and the Gaza Strip continues to pose a security threat to both Israel and Egypt. On Friday, an Israeli soldier was killed after gunmen opened fire on Israeli soldiers giving water to Eritreans who were trying to infiltrate into the Jewish state. Last month, 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed when terrorists ambushed a border post on the way to launching an attack inside of Israel. After the attack, Morsi vowed to re-take control of the area and launched a large-scale assault on armed groups in the Sinai.
“He has to be very cautious when it comes to Sinai,” Maha Azzam, an Egyptian researcher at Chatham House in London told The Media Line. “Sinai needs to be kept under control for both Egypt’s interest, for Israel and for the region in general. He has the backing of the military and the general population to create some kind of stability in Sinai.”
Israeli officials say the Egyptian government has not succeeded in asserting its control over the area, pointing to the continued smuggling of weapons and fighters into Gaza from Egyptian territory.
Morsi is likely to raise the issue of re-opening the 1979 Camp David peace treaty that included Israel’s return of Sinai to Egypt. While that agreement limits the number of troops Egypt can deploy in Sinai, Egyptian military officials have called for more. In the past few weeks, Israel has agreed to allow Egypt to increase troop count temporarily, but a sustained campaign against the Islamists will require a more significant increase over a sustained period of time.
Morsi has also moved quickly to consolidate power over his army, firing many of the top generals including Chief-of-Staff Mohamed Tantawi – the man who headed the military council that ruled the country between Hosni Mubarak’s fall and his own dismissal last month. Even a controversial visit to Iran has helped boost Morsi’s image.
“Firing the generals was a major step to show that Egypt is going to be a civilian state and that gained him a lot of respect,” Maha Azzam said. “And while there was some skepticism about his trip to Iran, he took a clear stance against Iran’s role in Syria and against the Syrian regime in general. He made it clear that Egypt was not going to play ball with Iran on any terms.”
When it comes to economic policy, Morsi has been more cautious. The Egyptian economy is in crisis, with revenues from tourism down significantly. The Economist magazine reports that Egypt is the third most indebted country in the world, with a debt of just under $207 billion dollars, which amounts to 82 percent of GDP. The Economist said Egypt could sink into a full financial crisis.
“Egypt has never depended so much on American assistance as it does now,” political scientist Maye Qasm said. “Without the US assistance, Egypt would be having a famine now. Bread is subsidized but people can’t depend on that. People can line-up for subsidized bread for two hours, but the bread runs out; so just because it’s subsidized doesn’t mean everyone who needs it has access to it.”
In addition to the food crisis, there is a growing employment crisis in Egypt as well. The population of 80 million people is growing by two percent a year, according to government statistics. About 60 percent of the population, and 90 percent of the unemployed, are under 30 years of age. About 40 percent of Egyptians live on less than two dollars per day, and up to one-third of the population are illiterate.
All of these statistics are part of the challenges facing Morsi. So far, most Egyptian analysts say he has performed better than expected for a leader with so little political experience. But he will have to make far-reaching changes in order to re-shape the Egyptian economy if he wants Egypt to remain an important player on the international scene.