To find the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly praise the man currently leading Egypt – an Islamist who has not found favour in high places previously – comes as a considerable surprise. But praise President Mohamed Morsi she did for his considerable efforts in brokering a ceasefire between the Israelis and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Morsi has long been a supporter of Hamas, which is viewed as a terrorist organisation by both Israel and the US. It is a mark of just how much has changed in the Middle East in the last two years that not only is he the democratically elected president of his country, but a respected interlocutor as well. His intervention was pragmatic; given the lessons of history, the ceasefire is probably temporary but the very last thing Morsi needed in the here-and-now was a major conflict on his borders, more so because all is not well in his own house.
While democratic and relatively free of rigging and corruption, the Egyptian elections that saw him come to power opened up several cans of worms. Not the least of these is that Morsi won by a slim margin, and almost half of those who voted did not vote for him. These people fear that he will take the country to the right theologically; that minorities like the Coptic Christians will be vulnerable and open to persecution; and that civil rights will be eroded. Economically, Egypt is a basket case and is going to need a helping hand from the IMF. The role that Morsi played in the ceasefire will have been noted positively both in the White House and the IMF – but that is not the note being read in Tahrir Square. On Friday afternoon, surrounded by security men, President Morsi spoke to the crowds. They were protesting against the sweeping powers he had awarded himself, which he says protect the Egyptian revolution rather than undermine it – Morsi has placed himself above judicial oversight until the new, and much delayed, constitution is prepared. The crowds were sceptical. Protesters attacked the offices of Muslim Brotherhood in Alexandria and other towns on the Mediterranean coast. With the sounds of warfare in Gaza stilled for now, Morsi has time to devote to mending fences at home. Rebuilding Egypt, a country where entire civilisations lasting more than a thousand years have come and gone, was never going to be an easy task. President Morsi is making the right moves to satisfy those whose business is geopolitics, but he has yet to pull the same trick domestically.