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Egyptian President’s Day One

President Mohamed Mursi, with Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi to his right, at Hikstep military base for the handing over of presidential power, June 30, 2012.

There actually is a rather ridiculous reason American presidential candidates talk about what they will do on “Day One.” It goes back to an executive order by Richard Nixon authorizing CIA surveillance of Americans. Carter cancelled it on his first day in office. Reagan restored it on his first day. Clinton cancelled it on his. It was sort of the American ping-pong ball until passage of the Patriot Act made it moot. Now, they all talk about what they will do on “Day One”, even if what they are saying they will do is not permissible under our Constitution.

But, if Romney thinks he’s got plans for his “Day One,” he should take a look at what Egypt’s new president faced on his first day in office.

Mohamed Mursi gave his inaugural address, made a lot of promises to the Egyptian people (including how he was going to free the Blind Sheikh from an American prison) and then went to work, where he found people lined up around the block with their petitions.

Inside the Presidential Palace, Mursi was trying to put together a new cabinet to sort of run the government. The Egyptian military has not relinquished complete powers to Mursi and the Constitutional Court disbanded the parliament. Outside, people were filling the courtyard, something they were never allowed to do during the Mubarak regime.

Egyptians want jobs. They want clemency for jailed relatives. They want compensation for relatives killed in the uprising last year. They want increases in their pensions to meet their cost of living. Mursi had promised that he would seek justice for all Egyptians. Defining “justice” may prove tricky for Mursi. He is an Islamist who ran on a platform of conservativism and Islamic law, but Egypt was a secular state for over 30 years and those who started the uprising that overthrew Hosni Mubarak are young, educated and global in their outlook. Women have enjoyed more freedom in Egypt than is normal in most Muslim countries.

On Sunday, the police and state security officers were dealing with a lot of disgruntled and unhappy people. They all wanted private audiences with Mursi.

One woman sat waiting on the pavement. She had come for a job for her son, the primary wage earner in their family. A young man wanted compensation for the injuries he sustained in Tahrir Square 17 months ago. An older man wanted the judgement a court had awarded him for war wounds sustained decades ago. A labor group calling itself the Movement for Fired Workers wanted actions taken against 15 companies that they claim illegally laid off employees.

Egypt’s economy is in crisis. Tourism has virtually ceased, and with it the flow of foreign hard currency. The uprising had been driven by high unemployment, particularly among young adults, and that has not changed. The state treasury is depleted, and even though Mursi promised liberalization to encourage investment, the continued political uncertainty is causing reluctance to invest in Egypt. Mursi will not be able to do what Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did initially in Iran and spread money around like sand to buy popularity. A further burden for Mursi is the fact that he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood, like Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, was a wellspring of charity and social welfare works. They provided cheap food, medicine and cash for those in need. The charity work of these groups overwhelms any concern over their political goals for the people who are receiving that charity. It is how Hamas and Hezbollah gained power, and how the Muslim Brotherhood won the parliamentary and presidential elections in Egypt. But there are 80 million Egyptians, and the Muslim Brotherhood cannot feed them all or give them jobs or do the kinds of things only a government can do.

Mursi is promising that he will quickly tackle the problems of ordinary life — garbage collection, traffic, distribution of bread, gasoline and cooking gas.    But three women who were waiting to see him, women seeking release of imprisoned loved ones, had the final word on the reality of a new Egypt.   Standing outside Mursi’s office, they yelled “Open this door.  It will never stand between you and your people, nor will it protect you from us!”

 

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