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Presidents and Pretenders
Meet Egypt's New Government
STEVEN A. COOK is Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square.See more by this author
On July 18, the tenth day of Ramadan, Egypt’s interim president, Adly Mansour, addressed the nation. The speech lasted ten minutes and was delivered in eloquent Arabic. Egyptians rejoiced. After two and a half politically grueling years during which, by virtually every measure, Egyptians became worse off than they had been before Hosni Mubarak’s 2011 fall, it had come to this: celebrating because the leader of the moment gave a speech that was short and intelligible.
In the wake of the July 3 military intervention that brought Mohamed Morsi’s presidency to a premature end, Egypt has a new opportunity to build a more just political order. But that task is just as difficult now, if not more so, than it was in February 2011. The Muslim Brotherhood and its poor decision-making, incompetence, and authoritarianism in the last two and half years did make Egypt’s problems worse, but it did not create them, either. Those old problems -- economic inequality, creaky infrastructure, a failing public-health system, nonexistent government services, and a political system rigged to serve the elite -- have persisted for decades and might just lead to further uncertainty and instability.
There are reasons to like the transition that Mansour and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) have set up, notably its sequence. The generals have put constitutional revisions before parliamentary and presidential elections, which will avoid the destabilizing politics that occurred during the transition from Mubarak to Morsi, when Egyptians voted for a parliament and a president whose responsibilities had yet to be enumerated. Once elected, politicians sought to maximize their powers and, in turn, enshrine their prerogative in a new constitution. Even so, there is an undeniable flaw at the heart of the new process -- it does not match the politics of the moment.