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Islamist President Faces Balancing Act In Egypt


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer, in for Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

In Egypt, a small victory for civil rights: A court there suspended a decree that allowed the military to arrest civilians. Other moves to amass power by the ruling military council, including dissolving Egypt's elected parliament, are still in effect.

The country's new president, Mohammed Morsi, is an Islamist and facing a balancing act. First, he's trying to take back some of the presidential powers now held by the military. At the same time, he's trying to reassure Egyptians that he's not fashioning an all-Islamist Cabinet.

For more, we turn to NPR's Peter Kenyon who is in Cairo. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: Let's start with yesterday's ruling. It actually reduced the military's powers, and those powers have been growing by leaps and bounds. Tell us about that court ruling.

KENYON: Well, the decree in question was issued by the military-appointed interim justice minister, and it authorized soldiers to arrest civilians on the streets. Some saw it as a chilling move to reinstate some of the sweeping emergency powers enjoyed by the authorities under Hosni Mubarak for decades. But as we saw yesterday, the first instant since the recent elections of an Egyptian court standing up to the ruling military council, an administrative court in Cairo suspended the decree, saying it violated constitutional principles going back many decades.

Now one of the lawyers who challenged that decree, Hafez Abu Saeda of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, told NPR that in this case, at least, the Egyptian judiciary did prove that it has something of an inclination toward human rights.

MONTAGNE: But in terms of political power, realistically at the moment, the military is the only game in town. It holds both presidential and legislative powers to itself. What are the chances that that will change now that a civilian president - and especially one who came from the Muslim Brotherhood - is about to take office?

KENYON: Well, if he's waiting for the judiciary to give him powers, Mr. Morsi will have to wait. There were two other - and arguably more important - cases before the court yesterday, one challenging the disillusion of parliament by the military. The other involved the status of the assembly that's supposed to be drafting a new Egyptian constitution.

The court yesterday deferred. It postponed rulings on both of those cases, and some, of course, are speculating that there may be the subject of ongoing negotiations between the president and the military. That's why the human rights lawyers yesterday - although they were pleased with the ruling on arresting civilians, they were a bit cautious, because they know the generals still hold most of the power here.

MONTAGNE: And Mohammed Morsi is due to be sworn in as president on Saturday. What are his first moves likely to be?

KENYON: Well, his aides say he's working on putting together a Cabinet and talking with the generals about his powers - the ones he no longer has. One the Cabinet, he's promised to include non-Islamists. In fact, he's talking about a national unity government. Not long ago, he formed a new coalition with some liberal and revolutionary youth groups. They want to see a non-Islamist named as prime minister, for example.

Other questions are: Will there be a woman in the Cabinet? A Coptic Christian? We are already pretty sure that the military wants to keep control of the defense ministry. And other key posts, such as interior and justice ministers, will be quite sensitive. Morsi also wants to push the military council to allow the constitution to be written. So Morsi's got to deal with the military and also convince people that he's not creating a theocracy.

MONTAGNE: And, finally, Peter, what about the man who got 48 percent of the vote in the presidential runoff, the former air force commander and one-time prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq?

KENYON: Well, Ahmed Shafiq got on the plane yesterday for the United Arab Emirates en route, reportedly, to Saudi Arabia for a religious pilgrimage. His campaign says he intends to return to Egypt and might even start a new political party. But he left just hours after prosecutors ordered an investigation into corruption allegations against him. So his future at this point seems uncertain.

MONTAGNE: And he's certainly out of the picture for the moment, then?

KENYON: Absolutely.

MONTAGNE: Peter, thanks much.

KENYON: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Peter Kenyon, in Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.

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