Is talk about Morsi a sign Egypt will enjoy a new freedom to gossip?

McClatchy NewspapersJune 28, 2012 

— Mohamed Morsi, the first Egyptian president to assume office without a military coup or the death or assassination of his predecessor, is a new experience for this country, which was ruled with an iron fist by Hosni Mubarak for three decades.

Military men have ruled Egypt since a 1952 coup d’etat sent King Farouk I on a cruise to Europe, and Egyptians have had no say in the country’s top-level politics since. Some of those who dared to have an opinion ended up in jail – or worse.

So Morsi’s victory, announced Sunday, and his inauguration, which will take place on Saturday, are new experiences for this country. That’s prompted rounds of news coverage and conversation that are unprecedented: Rumors about Morsi’s health, where he’ll live, what his security convoy will consist of, who will be in his Cabinet and even jokes have filled the pages of the country’s newspapers.

It’s a far cry from the way the country has behaved before, memorialized in the 1975 film “Al Karnak,” directed by Ali Badrakan and based on Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz’s novel “Karnak Cafe.” In “Al Karnak,” several intellectuals are detained at a coffee shop for criticizing President Gamal Abdel Nasser and the 1952 revolution that brought him to power, and are tortured. The film could well have been made at anytime during Mubarak’s reign.

Ibrahim Eissa, one of Egypt’s most controversial writers and TV personalities, who was jailed in 2007 for discussing Mubarak’s deteriorating health, first discussed Morsi’s health before the runoff election, saying on his cable program that the then candidate had “high blood pressure, diabetes, inflammation of the nerves, hepatitis C and might have undergone a surgery to remove a brain tumor.” Now the newspapers here are filled with similar claims, always attributed to “top officials.”

Other such speculation includes whether Morsi will live in the presidential palace or stay in the apartment he rents in eastern Cairo, whether he plans to donate his salary to the state, where the inauguration will take place (the choices were the palace, the offices of the Supreme Constitutional Court, a conference hall at the fairgrounds or in Tahrir Square, the iconic venue for the massive demonstrations that led to Mubarak’s resignation last year; in the end, the Supreme Court offices were picked because the ruling military council said that’s what the constitution required).

State-owned news media have tried to dampen such speculation. A statement posted on state media Websites reminded readers that the “office of the president is the only authority that can speak on behalf of the president.”

But the speculation rages, nonetheless, leading to a discussion over whether the new order that’s dawning will include open discussion of the president’s weaknesses, as well as his strengths.

“Those could be considered signals of more freedoms, but we cannot confirm that until we see it in official terms,” said Ziad Akl, a political sociologist and researcher at the state-owned Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “There have to be laws protecting freedom of expression and confirming that the government has no authority over press or opinion making” before being certain times have changed.

Akl believes that one of Morsi’s top priorities will include “offering a different model for president.”

“How long this atmosphere will last depends on when and if such speech is legalized,” he said. “It also depends on those around the president and how they will move, either towards democratic progress or elsewhere.”

“That being said, Morsi’s ascent to the presidency is a different experience,” Akl said.

That was on display Thursday in Tahrir Square, where Khalil Ahmed, a 35-year-old shop owner, spent his third day protesting decisions made by Egypt’s military generals to dissolve Parliament and “attempts to hijack powers of the president.”

“He should fight for his powers and fulfill his promise by appointing a coalition government that will represent all Egyptians,” said Ahmed while sipping his tea at a shop near the square.

“If he wants to remain president he should satisfy the public,” said Ahmed.

Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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