Dr. El-Baz on the Egyptian Elections, New Regime

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Assessing Egypt’s New Regime: BU’s El-Baz sees Morsi’s victory as a boon for democracy

By Susan Seligson

BU Today

June 27, 2012

The whole world is watching Egypt’s first freely elected leader in 60 years, U.S.-educated engineer Mohamed Morsi. Last week Morsi narrowly defeated (51.7 percent to 48 percent) former President Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, for the presidency. Morsi faces formidable challenges at home, where the military’s role remains unclear and unemployment is rampant, as well as scrutiny from the West and Israel. A longtime member of the officially banned Muslim Brotherhood, he became a candidate after the Brotherhood’s first choice, Khairat el-Shater, was disqualified. Greeting throngs of elated supporters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Sunday, Morsi proclaimed himself a leader for all Egyptians, vowing to protect the rights of women and children, Muslims and Christians, and on Monday he announced plans to appoint a woman as vice president.

Among those optimistic that a Morsi presidency can lead Egypt out of its economic turmoil and make it a model of moderate Islamic rule is Egyptian-born Farouk El-Baz, a College of Arts & Sciences research professor of archaeology and a College of Engineering research professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of the BU Center for Remote Sensing. El-Baz was science advisor to the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat from 1978 to 1981. “Egypt’s first free presidential election represents a game-changing event throughout the Arab world,” he said last month, on the eve of the historic election that empowered Egyptians for the first time in memory. BU Today checked in with El-Baz, who has family in Egypt and visits there several times a year, to get his assessment of Morsi’s victory and its potential impact on the average Egyptian, the future of Egypt’s peace with Israel, and the country’s foreign policy.

BU Today: What does Mohamed Morsi’s victory mean to the Egyptian people?

El-Baz: All is good; it’s the first free election in Egypt in 60 years, and the celebration in Tahrir Square will go on for days. For Morsi to be successful the military must no longer be voicing orders to a civilian president or an elected parliament.

The election was close. What accounts for so many voters choosing to support Shafiq, a candidate from Mubarak’s embattled regime?

There was a huge percentage of the population that was sick and tired of the messiness. There was no order in the street. After Mubarak’s resignation there were people saying, we won’t work tomorrow, or, we want to double our salaries. There were other irresponsible acts due to there being no government, and some interpreted the situation as a nation being without laws. People feared there would be a surge in crime and thought Egypt needed a tough leader to put everyone back in line. A vote for a man of Mubarak would be a vote for law and order.

Did the vote tallies reflect a class division?

Yes. The Shafiq supporters—the fear voters—were mostly factory owners, owners of small banks and other businesses. The people who voted for the Muslim Brotherhood were mostly from poorer sections of society, and they voted for the Brotherhood because it has catered to them for years. Long before the election, the Brotherhood collected alms, called zakat, from rich people and dispensed them to the poor. And so the poor would say, we will vote for those who came to help us.

Morsi has been called “lackluster.” What’s your take on him?

Well, he is lackluster. He’s a university professor, so what do you expect? He’s uppity. He doesn’t know how to speak to normal people, and he doesn’t know how to put his hand on their pulse. But there were enough men in the Muslim Brotherhood who never took their hands off the pulse. They will give him instruction.

Do you anticipate any major changes in foreign policy under Morsi?

Most likely very little is going to change. Egyptian foreign policy has run very well for years, keeping good relations with the East and the West, with China and Russia, keeping Egypt in the mainstream and not aligning with crazy people. Morsi made a few positive remarks about Iran and negative remarks about Israel, but such comments are all for street consumption.

What would Egypt be risking if it shifts allegiances or in any way alienates the West?

Egypt must hold on to western aid, and especially to tourism. A lot is at stake. Supposedly 10 percent of Egypt’s economy relies on tourism, but that just accounts for hotels and sites. I think it’s more like 30 percent when you consider all the people who sell things to tourists. Vast numbers of Egyptians live off tourism, and the new government must not endanger this at all.

Is unemployment one of the biggest challenges this administration faces?

There’s a clear understanding that one of the most important things to do is improve Egypt’s economy. There is huge unemployment—25 percent of college graduates have no jobs and no prospects.

Does Morsi’s victory pose any dilemmas for the Obama administration?

In real life, there is no challenge to Obama, and the Obama administration is very pleased with the result, and has said so. The reason for this is that the administration has been making calls on all of the Brotherhood leaders and sounding them out on the subjects of jihadists and threats to the peace with Israel. And all have given their assurances that none of these fears are grounded.

But the conservative Israeli press is voicing fears of the dismantling of the 1979 Camp David peace treaty, at the very least.

The Camp David Accords are nonmodifiable. In Israel you have two groups of people. There are the troublemakers and the fundamentalists, who are making a mountain out of a molehill, and they will continue to do that. But then there are all the pragmatists, who recognize that some day some accommodation must go to the Palestinians and resolve this situation for good. Even though I’m 75, I think that accommodation will happen in my lifetime. People will say, enough is enough, we have to befriend these people.

Could Morsi’s presidency serve to soften Western views of Islam?

The world may take this as a sign that moderate Islam can be a real winner, and economically viable. Egypt can be a role model, as it was in the Arab spring. And the change can, by default, ameliorate potential problems of political Islam and make it harder for Islamophobia to thrive.

Are Egypt’s non-Muslim citizens nervous about living under the rule of an Islamic Brotherhood leader?

This is something to watch. Egypt’s majority is Islam, so others must live with that. But a lot of Christians are saying, “Islamic rule is a nightmare for us; we must get out of here.” In spite of government and other reassurances, they say, “You don’t understand.” For Egypt to be stabilized, Morsi must take this into account, and he stated this in his first TV appearance: Egypt is for Egyptians of all positions, genders, and religions. Of course, the people will have to see acts, not just words.

The ruling military council is reportedly still claiming control over legislation and other aspects of government. What will the role of the military be in the new Egypt?

They are as confused about this as you are. It’s a big problem. The military wants to keep its budget out of civilian discussion, and keep its companies thriving. They are the greatest builders of roads in Egypt, and have free labor. They have to give this up. You can’t have a constitution that allows this. The military’s job is to protect the country; that is its role. You do as you’re told.