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Big Questions for President Morsi

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With Egypt's new president, Muhammed Morsi, taking the oath of the high office last Saturday, the political party of the once-illegal Muslim Brotherhood officially reigns supreme. But the Supreme Council of the Armed Forced (SCAF), an inseparable lever of Egyptian state autocracy, is still very much in charge.

To discuss Egypt's protracted power struggle, the Cairo Review of Global Affairs and the New America Foundation's Middle East Task Force convened a round table in Washington, D.C. last week. Leading analysts Samer Shehata and Michael Wahid Hanna reflected on their recent visits to Egypt during the presidential balloting and assessed the so-called revolution's progress, or lack thereof.

"It's interesting that [President Morsi] went to see [SCAF Chairman] Tantawi instead of Tantawi going to see him," noted Georgetown Professor Samer Shehata in describing just how little the underlying Egyptian power dynamics have changed.

If one were to deconstruct Cairo's politics since January 2011, the three strongest forces vying for power are the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the Muslim Brotherhood, and the protest movement in Tahrir Square and beyond. Despite temporary alliances, no one political actor can control all of the three.

Let's start with the SCAF. I asked Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation, about the military's outlook: whether its heavy-handed marshaling of Egypt's transition exemplifies a stroke of evil genius or bungling impulsiveness.

"In recent days, it has become clear that we have underestimated SCAF's ideological viewpoints," said Hanna. The military is "not going to turn over the government to the [Muslim Brotherhood]. They are just not going to do it... The big question will be, where are those red lines that Morsi can't cross. The Ministries of Defense, Interior, and Justice are off limits."

The Brotherhood and its affiliated Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) faces tremendous challenges, too. Although no other political party or candidate could compete with their political machine and electoral prowess, the pressure is now on Morsi.

For the new president, the first order of business must be to mend the economy. "Egypt is on the verge of an economic crisis," Shehata said. But the FJP is "pursuing an approach that is akin to Mubarak era policies but without the rampant corruption that characterized the deposed autocrat."

Considering the Brotherhood's overtly neoliberal economic strategies, Washington might find it easier to work with the Freedom and Justice Party than Fox News might have you believe. "They see eye to eye with Western businessmen, and they prioritize this as the bridge with the West," Hanna said. The FJP is basically saying, "Look, we can all get along, we're happy to have [Foreign Direct Investment] and we're not going radicalize anything."

Another central question is how a Morsi presidency will address the revolutionary protest movement, many of whom voted for him in the June 16-17 run-off. "It's also important to acknowledge that there is a wild card in this equation which is political pressure from below," said Hesham Sallam, the Egypt editor of the web magazine Jadaliyya, which means controversy in Arabic.

The Muslim Brotherhood, "won't stand up to SCAF and won't attack full force security sector reform, [or a] redistributive agenda -- issues that are front and center," Sallam explained. Don't expect a Morsi presidency to make, "any headway on the principles of the revolution."

More institutional impediments than just the SCAF or Muslim Brotherhood politicking remain. After decades of authoritarian mismanagement, one must take into account the entrenched institutions for which there has been no revolution. Shehata explained that the "tremendous weight of the Egyptian state" poses a threat to widespread reform. "It's going to be difficult and long going to make significant progress... considering the weight of the 6 million person Egyptian state [bureaucracy]."

Nancy Okail, the Egypt director of Freedom House, added that for those holding the real seats of power there has been "musical chairs, but not real shifts or change."

I returned to Cairo a week later to find the country very much in limbo. Last month, the SCAF disbanded the elected parliament and issued constitutional edicts that will reshape Egypt's laws to the old guard's favor. The conflicting agendas of the military, the Brotherhood, and the street will continue to set the stage for the next period of transition. It's not over yet.

The real question is whether President Morsy will continue to engage in backroom deals with the military or address head-on the grievances of Tahrir protesters. He won't be able to do both forever.