First interview fails to impress
President Mohamed Mursi has sent clear messages to the West and confused messages back home, reports Dina Ezzat
"Mr President, you are working so hard around the clock, when do you get to rest at all, what with all this work you are doing for us?" Such was one question that the anchor of the state-owned Channel One television station put to President Mohamed Mursi during an interview aired on Saturday evening.
Coming towards the end of the interview, the question seemed to summarise the kind of questions that for many commentators are those that the state-owned press tends to put to the newly elected president. Al-Ahram Weekly sources at the office of the minister of information confirmed that the question had been pre-scripted for the interview.
Mursi's appearance on the Channel One interview was the first the newly elected Muslim Brotherhood president has given since being sworn in as the country's first freely-elected civilian president on 30 June.
It came in the wake of days of political and military turmoil, during which Mursi had to face harsh criticism over his early political performance and over an attack on Egyptian soldiers in Sinai last month that expanded into a confrontation on the border with Israel, allowing Mursi to remove members of the then still-powerful Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
In his interview, broadcast on television and on numerous state-run radio stations, Mursi did not come across as a charismatic figure, in the opinion of commentators, activists and regular viewers. He did not give the impression of having a particular agenda either.
Worse, according to some observers, Mursi's Saturday evening interview recalled those that ousted former president Hosni Mubarak used to give to the state-owned media throughout his 30 years as head of state.
"Apart from the exaggerated, and to be honest rather superimposed, Islamist rhetoric, Mursi was Mubarak, almost 100 per cent so. He was given a free ride in the interview. He said whatever he wished to say, irrespective of the questions that were put to him, and he aimed throughout to come across as someone who was working around the clock and was doing very well," said Suzy, a 40-year-old schoolteacher in Cairo.
Suzy, an elegant, veiled lady and Heliopolis resident who voted for Mursi in the second round of the presidential elections that took place last June, after her favourite candidate Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh did not make it through from round one, was "unimpressed" by the interview.
"To be honest, I think it would have been better for him not to have given the interview, because so far I had been reasonably satisfied with his performance. He had done some good things, even if he was not always very smart or brave in his decisions."
But Suzy had been particularly dismayed at what she qualified as the "weak" nature of the weekend interview in which the president had been able to say whatever he wanted and not be asked any kind of follow-up questions.
"Mubarak used to do the same thing, and we used to criticise him for it. We used to say that he had staged his interviews, and we never bothered either to watch them or to read the headlines in the papers as a result. On that evening, Mursi was acting exactly like Mubarak, which is disturbing because it means that he could eventually develop into another Mubarak in every sense of the word and turn into some kind of dictator who would seek to pass power, not necessarily to his son [as Mubarak had tried to do], but may be to someone of his choice instead," Suzy said.
In the slightly over an hour interview on Saturday evening, Mursi more or less reiterated his general political views, which he has been repeating since the beginning of his electoral campaign a little over a month before round one of the presidential elections last May.
The Egyptian people are determined to make change happen, he said, and the president acts according to the wishes of the Egyptian people. Democratisation is a process that has now been put in motion. Egypt has large and previously abused wealth and resources that could help deliver economic growth if well-managed. The president is keen on refraining from interfering in the drafting of the new constitution and is committed to observing the separation of powers, even if he temporarily holds both the executive and legislative powers pending the election of a new parliament.
The mistakes of the past will not go unpunished, Mursi went on. Corruption will be reduced and justice will be done "at the hands of the impeccable judiciary of Egypt". Demonstrations protesting at working conditions should not be at the expense of productivity, and foreign visits are designed to serve the national interests.
"When I was doing the headlines for the interview, I felt as if I was reading the text of one of Mubarak's interviews. I acted in exactly the same way when choosing the headlines. It's the same old story all over again," said the news editor of one of the older independent dailies.
This editor declined to speak on the record because "the rules remain the same -- the president gives an interview which is prerecorded and not live; he is asked questions that are clearly tailored to his convenience and to allow him to review his supposedly remarkable achievements; he is not pushed or challenged in any way by the anchor, who sits there with a big smile on his face and an endlessly nodding head and avoids all the controversial issues."
"To make it even more like a typical Mubarak interview, Mursi made a bizarre reference to something that has no direct influence on the key concerns of citizens today -- the prices of mangos."
Mangos are a favourite, but usually rather expensive, summer fruit in Egypt, and in his Saturday interview Mursi referred to the almost unprecedentedly low price of mangos on the market, the result of a good harvest and an indication, he said, of an upswing in economic welfare.
The remark led to the president's being mocked across the social media networks and in many of the columns of the country's independent dailies. One remark was that Mursi, "with the help of God, is going to turn Egypt into a Mango Republic," a play on the idea of a Banana Republic.
Mangos aside, the interview failed to impress. "Was this what I was expecting to hear? The answer is no, neither in form nor in content," said Ragiah Omran, a lawyer and activist, who was particularly concerned at the lack of any serious reference to matters of social justice.
"This is a country where a revolution ousted a regime and introduced another, the one that Mursi now heads, based on clear demands for social justice. Therefore, social justice should be an item on the agenda of what Mursi says and does, but this was not at all reflected in the interview," Omran argued.
Omran's detection of resemblance in style and content between Mursi's interview and those that used to be given by former president Mubarak was not as worrying to her as what she said was "on-the-ground evidence of resemblances" between the regimes of Mubarak and Mursi.
Activists were still being arrested without a legal mandate, she said, and those activists who had been arrested during the transitional phase under the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, appointed by Mubarak and removed in August by Mursi, had not been released except for certain individuals.
"Mursi is insisting that he has done his part by assigning a committee to examine the cases of the arrested activists," she said, but he has done nothing more. Meanwhile, Egypt is receiving a loan from the International Monetary Fund and nobody really knows the terms and conditions. The business community that surrounded Mubarak and influenced his decisions is still largely present and being accommodated by Mursi and his government, and the constitution is being drafted in a convoluted way depending on the influence of the Islamist majority.
"If I wanted to find differences between the Muslim Brotherhood, or their Freedom and Justice Party [FJP], and the National Democratic Party of Mubarak, I would not find that many," Omran said.
For members of the Brotherhood and the FJP, Mursi's television interview was not necessarily an indication of the organisation's party lines, but instead was a good interview that reflected the president's determination to speak and act like ordinary Egyptians.
"The president is no longer a member of the Brotherhood or FJP. What he said in his interview reflects his views as the president of all Egyptians and not as a member of the organisation or the party," leading Brotherhood figure Mohamed Al-Beltagui said, declining to make any further comments on the matter.
"The interview is something for the presidential spokesman and not for the party to comment on," he said.
For his part, Brotherhood and FJP MP Hamdi Hassan, based in Alexandria, was more forthcoming in his remarks and said that Mursi was "not addressing the nation for the first time during this interview, and he did not need to go through the whole list of national concerns one by one. Instead, he was answering the questions that were put to him, and anyone that has a problem with the interview should blame the questions not the answers."
The criticisms that Hassan agreed the interview had solicited were largely "a function of the control of the left and the liberals over the media," he said. "They cannot reconcile themselves to the fact that the nation has chosen a president from the Islamist trend, and they would attack him whatever he said."
Hassan was convinced that the "increasing admiration" Mursi is soliciting will be reflected in the next parliamentary elections, due next winter, when he expects an overwhelming majority of the seats to go to the Islamists. "The test is in the ballot box. The Islamists will regain a majority, and the leftists and liberals will have to accept it," Hassan, a medical doctor by profession, said.
For some Western diplomats in Cairo, the Mursi interview indicated something that not many Egyptian observers have given serious attention to: the fact that Mursi is an Islamist president who is determined to support the cause of political Islam all the way he can, but who does not follow the Salafist path of rejecting those who disagree with him.
"As a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, his announced 'resignation' aside, Mursi was making mild, even if certainly not liberal, arguments. This would not have been the case with Hazem Abu Ismail," a charismatic Salafi who was prevented from running for the presidency when it was revealed his mother had American citizenship, said one Western diplomat based in Cairo. "As such, this is a plus," she added.
Mursi's interview with the New York Times newspaper on Sunday, which covered another range of issues, led to similar observations by Western diplomats.
"Mursi is saying I am not Mubarak, and I am not going to be fully or easily yours, but at the same time I am not Hazem Salah Abu Ismail either, and I am not going to necessarily argue with you all the time," said another Cairo-based Western diplomat. In his interview with the Times, Mursi had said exactly that: that he would not be hostile to the West, but he would not be compliant either.
In line with this style, Mursi reaffirmed his commitment to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, with all its attendant regulations, in the interview, and he did not push the calls made by those who have demanded its amendment to make it less biased towards the demands of Israeli generals.
However, Mursi re-introduced a line that was almost entirely missing from Mubarak's discourse, which was that if the US wants Egypt to honour the terms of the peace treaty with Israel, Washington should also honour the Camp David commitments made prior to the signing of the treaty that pledged to work to end the plight of the Palestinian people.
Mursi did not attack the US for its lifestyle or social values, which is what some Western diplomats in Cairo would have expected Abu Ismail to do, but he did argue that there were difference in values between Egypt and the US, and he did not disassociate his own values from political Islam.
"If you want to judge the performance of the Egyptian people by the standards of German or Chinese or American culture, then there is no room for judgement," the president told the New York Times. "When the Egyptians decide something, probably it is not appropriate for the US. When the Americans decide something, this, of course, is not appropriate for Egypt," he said.
This line was not disturbing to most Western diplomats who spoke to the Weekly in Cairo. In the words of one, "it is only expected," and in the words of another, "at the end of the day, Mursi is proving to be someone who wants, and to say the truth, is, different from Mubarak on some issues but not on others."
Mursi's visit to Tehran last month was a clear indication to some of these diplomats of the differences between Mubarak and Mursi, which they say have mostly concerned foreign-policy matters up to now.
"That was a big coup," said one. "It was not just that he went to Tehran, but also that he told the Iranian leaders exactly the things they would not have wanted him to say, especially with his attack on the Syrian regime."
On home issues, ranging from the rights of women and Copts, with Mursi telling the Times that he would welcome Copts in top posts, but would not personally vote for them, to economic choices, most Western diplomats expect Mursi to be eclectic.
He is likely to take some things, some say many, from Mubarak's book, while he will introduce others, essentially of an Islamist colour.