Morsi takes on Egypt's military

Was the new Egyptian president neutered before he even entered office?

After a quiet opening fortnight, Mohamed Morsi's presidency has taken a confrontational turn.

Two decrees in the space of a week have boosted the newly elected president's credentials as an adversary of Egypt's junta, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The first launched a new investigation into the deaths of protesters in the wake of the January revolution. If allowed to conduct its business unimpeded, this could prove damning for individuals within the military’s command structure. The second, meanwhile, called for the reinstatement of the country's newly elected parliament, a body that had been dissolved by the military on the eve of the presidential vote. 

Some believed Morsi’s influence had been neutered before he had even entered office. Despite assuming the trappings of power, he faces significant limitations on his ability to act.

The military-led transition that followed the fall of Hosni Mubarak saw a series of political maneuverings that cast doubt on the likelihood of an election taking place at all.

The SCAF had continuously reshaped the contours of the electoral race, aided by a proactive judiciary that disqualified three front-running candidates and declared that the law governing last year’s parliamentary elections was unconstitutional. Weeks of political and legal uncertainty were then compounded as the polls closed on June 18: an eleventh hour decree by the junta reclaimed key executive powers for itself, notably reserving the right to oversee the writing of a new constitution if existing drafters fail to perform adequately.

Furthermore, the military-drafted budget that came into force on Morsi’s first day in office leaves little room for new policies. Almost eighty percent of spending has already been allotted to subsidies, public sector salaries, and debt repayment, leaving only a small tranche with which to fulfill campaign promises on improved public services.

Yet despite these constraints, Morsi has now fired his opening salvos across the bows of SCAF authority. In calling for the reinstatement of the Muslim Brotherhood-led parliament, he is openly defying the generals. According to constitutional expert Dr Nathan Brown, this represents ‘a serious confrontation. This is an attempt to roll back the clock, but this time with the presidency in [Brotherhood] hands and with the SCAF fully committed to its June supplementary constitutional declaration.’

Nevertheless, the move may be less radical than it first appears. Morsi’s decree rejects the SCAF’s most recent political manipulations, but at this stage continues to comply with aspects of the political roadmap put forward by the junta in June. This emphasised the temporary nature of Egypt’s parliament, declaring that: "elections will take place one month from the day the new constitution is approved by national referendum."

In addition, the scope of Morsi’s latest decree remains limited. In targeting the SCAF’s dissolution of parliament, he has avoided the potential for a bolder challenge against the legal ruling which made this possible in the first place. This suggests that the move is more symbolic than it is motivated by a genuine belief that he holds the power to reinstate parliament.

After weeks of debate over the potential shape of a Morsi presidency, its contours are beginning to emerge. His approach to the parliamentary issue reveals a pragmatic attitude to challenging the military, testing the waters without disrupting them altogether.

The inevitable upshot of this opening gambit will be a revived debate over the parliament’s dissolution, pushing the issue back into the open and eliciting a greater degree of clarity over its future. A smart move, it seems, and one that appears to have knocked the usually confident SCAF off-kilter. The junta’s reaction will reveal much about where power really lies in the new Egypt.


Egypt's president, Mohamed Morsi. Photograph: Getty Images
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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.