Omar el-Guindy held a sweat-stained dossier of medical reports under his arm as he waited outside the presidential palace, hoping to petition Egypt’s first civilian president to help his eight-year-old son in his struggle to stay alive.
Ahead of him in the Cairo neighborhood of Heliopolis were tens of others, each with their own set of problems, as they gathered in front of the iron gates to present petitions to Mohamed Mursi, the country’s first democratically elected Islamist president, a man they hoped would take action after they voted him into office. The scene over the past week, which included protestors pounding on the gates, would have been unthinkable under Mursi’s ousted predecessor and reflected the expectations of the population and the response to the casual, responsive, image he projected during his campaign.
“There’s no one else who can help,” said el-Guindy who, on a monthly salary of 850 Egyptian pounds ($140), can’t afford the thousands of pounds needed for his son’s treatment for kidney failure at a quality hospital. “I’ve borrowed from everyone, sold everything I have. There’s nothing left for me to do.”
Mursi, 60, a U.S.-trained engineer who was briefly imprisoned under his predecessor Hosni Mubarak, has pledged to meet the needs of Egypt’s poor and bring an end to decades of neglect and more than a year of unrest. In the 17 months since Mubarak was pushed from power, unemployment has climbed, foreign reserves have been drained by more than a half and about 50 percent of the government budget is already earmarked for wages and debt servicing.
A member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mursi edged out his rival to claim the presidency with the backing of about 25 percent of Egypt’s registered voters. In his first week, Mursi has raised public-sector wages and vowed to improve the lot of the country’s 82 million citizens.
“If a miracle happens, and the man manages to fulfil some of his promises, then he’s entered history through its widest doors,” commentator Fahmy Howeidy wrote in the independent al-Shorouk newspaper on July 3. “We need a president who can shock us with his openness and boldness in facing challenges, not someone who’s trying to impress us with his kindness and emotional messages.”
Perhaps the most telling example of Mursi’s style of governance is that a line formed at all outside the presidential palace. Under Mubarak, whose picture adorned government offices and who was rarely seen in public, that would have been unthinkable.
“Why shouldn’t we ask to see him?” asked Adel Mohamed, a ceramic factory worker who was among those gathered at the palace gates. “We elected him to help us after the pharaoh left us with a nation of chaos.”
Since the uprising against Mubarak began in January 2011, the Arab world’s most populous nation has endured a turbulent transition that has compounded decades of inequality. Demands from voters in last month’s election include the creation of new jobs and housing, the introduction of higher wages, the revamping of dilapidated health and education systems and an end to corruption and cronyism.
For his first 100 days, Mursi vowed to tackle some chronic problems affecting Egypt’s cities, including traffic, garbage and shortages of subsidized bread. He also raised the salaries of state administrative workers by 15 percent, ordered a pension increase for the military by the same amount and told the heads of the governorates that the measure of their performance was based on the feedback of those living in their regions.
He is now looking to form a coalition government including a woman, a Coptic Christian and a member of the youth activist movement that took part in the uprising as deputies. The Cabinet, he and his advisers have said, will include ministers drawn from a wide political spectrum.
After narrowly winning the race against Mubarak’s last premier, Ahmed Shafik, Mursi needs allies. The Islamist took slightly more than 50 percent of the vote, with about half of the eligible voters staying away from the polls. Many of the secularists, Christians and revolutionary youth groups who sided with Mursi said they did so more to block Shafik from office than to endorse a member of the Brotherhood.
Even before he was sworn into office, Mursi tried to harness public support by casting himself as the “revolutionary candidate” and a servant of the people. A day before his June 30 inauguration, he appeared in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the center of the revolt last year, to give his first public speech since being declared the official winner. In front of a crowd of thousands, he threw open his jacket to show he wasn’t wearing a bulletproof vest.
Apart from the public, Mursi must also deal with the military, which took interim power after Mubarak was toppled. Even as the presidential election drew to a close last month, the Islamist-dominated parliament was dissolved by court order and the ruling generals issued a decree that boosted their power at the expense of the presidency.
Mursi’s decision to take the oath of office before the constitutional court instead of -- as the Brotherhood had insisted -- the parliament, raised red flags for the youth groups that had opposed military rule. Asmaa Mahfouz, an activist who met with Mursi after he won the election, said they urged him to reject the decree.
“As long as he cast himself as the candidate of the revolution, then he must act accordingly,” she said.
Mursi ordered that a special body be set up to hear and follow up on the grievances being raised by citizens, including those protesting outside the place, his spokesman, Yasser Ali, was cited as saying by the state-run Middle East News Agency yesterday. He also said a presidency website would established that would include a link allowing people to raise their concerns or problems.
The new president also ordered a committee be set up to check on the welfare of the thousands detained by the military following the uprising, as well as those still in custody, the state-run Al-Ahram reported today.
‘Dignity and Rights’
“This revolution was supposed to restore our dignity and rights,” said el-Guindy outside the palace. “I’m here to get that dignity and those rights -- not for me, but for my son.”
Mursi has yet to name a Cabinet, working instead with the same interim government that the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party criticized for its handling of the economy. A $3.2 billion International Monetary Fund loan that was re-applied for in January is still unapproved, with the IMF saying it is waiting for political consensus to emerge on the deal.
“It’s difficult to imagine what a government can do in the next 12 months other than generate sufficient external support to plug the gap,” said Crispin Hawes, head of the Mideast and North Africa program at Eurasia Group consultancy. It is “impossible for an Egyptian politician to stand up in public and say, ‘This economy cannot support its population,’ which, I think, is the unfortunate reality.”
Mursi can rely on support from the Brotherhood, an organization long known for its ability to mobilize resources and deliver services when the Mubarak administration fell short. Several people including Omayma Ibrahim, a teacher who lives in the southern city of Assiut, said the group was already working to ensure the distribution of subsidized bread.
Ibrahim said in a phone interview she saw Brotherhood members telling one baker that they would buy his entire stock and ensure it reaches the market at the official price. Egyptians often complain that the bread they buy is substandard, claiming bakeries use only a fraction of their flour for subsidized loaves and then resell full-sized loaves to other shops at higher prices.
“They’re doing what the government should be doing,” Ibrahim said.