Editorial: Egypt's New President

Egypt marked another stage in its political transition this weekend, when Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was declared the country’s first freely elected president. Though the announcement ended a week of rumors and doubts regarding the winner of Egypt’s first competitive presidential election, it did little to resolve the numerous problems plaguing the Arab world’s most populous state.

Morsi, who is expected to take his oath of office later this month, will inherit a country in deep crisis. The government structure of post-Mubarak Egypt is up in the air, as the Brotherhood, which has become virtually unstoppable in its quest for political power, continues to clash with the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

The SCAF issued a constitutional decree last week that gave the ruling generals many of the executive powers previously reserved for the president, meaning that it is not even clear what authorities Morsi will have. A new constitution has yet to be drafted, and the composition of the committee that is supposed to draw up the document remains unknown. Meanwhile, the new Islamist-dominated parliament, formed just a few months ago, has been dissolved by court order.

Egypt’s economy is struggling, beset by high unemployment and low growth rates. Foreign investment has plummeted since last year’s revolution, and the once booming tourism industry is frozen due to the ongoing instability. With a ballooning budget deficit and dwindling foreign currency reserves, the new rulers in Cairo will have to provide quick solutions.

Morsi and the soon-to-be-formed government will also have to deal with rampant lawlessness, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula. Terrorist groups, often collaborating with a restive and radicalized Bedouin population, have begun using the area for training and as a launching pad for cross-border attacks into Israel. Taking advantage of lax security, arms smugglers have established a thriving trade, allowing advanced weapons to make their way into the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

A terrorist attack in August last year by gunmen infiltrating Israel from the Sinai left eight Israelis dead. And just last week, a terrorist cell crossed into Israel from the Sinai, ambushing and killing an Israeli citizen who was working on the construction of the Israel-Egypt border fence.

Despite these recurrent incidents, Israel has been careful to avoid infringing on Egyptian sovereignty. The Jewish state is doing what it can to increase security along its border with Egypt, investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the construction of a border fence and deploying anti-terrorism units to the area. It has also permitted Cairo to temporarily deploy additional troops in the Sinai in order to crack down on radical Islamist groups.

The United States also has a role to play in ensuring security along Israel’s southern border, while maintaining peaceful relations between Israel and Egypt. Making use of the close relationship it has with Egypt, Washington should clearly define its expectations of the country’s new leaders. These include abiding by its international obligations, among them the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty and the Constantinople Convention, which guarantees freedom of shipping through the Suez Canal to commercial and naval vessels of all nations.

The responsibility for the security of the Sinai Peninsula ultimately falls on Egypt. It is incumbent on Cairo to exercise its sovereignty and guarantee that its territory is not being used to attack neighboring countries or smuggle arms to terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip.

Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel also requires it to keep most of the Sinai demilitarized, permit the continued presence in the Sinai of the U.S.-led Multinational Force and Observers – the international force responsible for overseeing compliance with the terms of the peace treaty – and ensure that the Suez Canal remains open to the passage of Israeli civilian and military ships.

Though President-elect Morsi said he carried a “message of peace” in his first televised address and pledged to preserve Egypt’s international accords, he has previously expressed troublesome anti-American and anti-Israeli views.

He has cast doubt on al-Qaeda’s role in the events of 9/11, and has said that the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty is “unfair” to Egypt’s interests. “The only language they [Israel] understand is force hence what is taken by force must be restored by force,” he said.

This type of rhetoric raises serious concerns about Morsi’s commitment to his country’s international commitments and its peace with Israel, a cornerstone of regional stability. In the end, however, the new president will be judged on his actions. Washington must be vigilant.