Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi named a liberal Christian, a hardline Islamist and a woman as assistants Monday as he sought to reach out beyond his power base in the Muslim Brotherhood to rival groups.
Morsi’s appointments, announced just before he left for China on a key trip abroad, were seen as a balancing act between Egypt’s Coptic minority, which has felt threatened by Morsi’s Islamist roots, and the Brotherhood’s ultra-conservative Salafist rivals.
Morsi wanted to give representation to “all strands of political opinion and all components of society,” his spokesman Yasser Ali said, announcing the appointments.
Samir Morcos, a Coptic writer engaged in the dialogue between Islam and Christianity, was named “assistant for democratic transition”, in a gesture to the minority community which has been hit by mounting violence since the overthrow of veteran strongman Hosni Mubarak early last year.
Morsi had pledged during his presidential election campaign to include Copts in his administration but the community was unhappy over the composition of the new cabinet sworn in earlier this month which included just one Copt — one of two women ministers, both in low profile posts.
The Copts, who make up between six and 10 percent of Egypt’s 82-million-strong population, were the target of sectarian attack under Mubarak too but dozens have been killed since his ouster.
Washington last month voiced concern over “both the Egyptian government’s failure to curb rising violence against Coptic Christians and its involvement in violent attacks”.
As a counterbalance, Morsi named as “assistant in charge of relations with civil society” the leader of the Salafists’ Al-Nur party, Emad Abdel Ghafour.
The party won nearly 20 percent of the seats in multi-phase parliamentary elections that concluded earlier this year and the appointment was seen as a move to counter accusations that under Morsi the Brotherhood was monopolising power.
Morsi did reward one of his own, naming Essam al-Haddad of the Brotherhoood’s Freedom and Justice Party assistant for “external relations and international cooperation.”
He named a woman “assistant for political affairs” — Pakinam al-Sharkawi, a political sciences professor at Cairo university.
Sharkawi, who wears the veil despite not being affiliated with any Islamist party, told the independent Al-Masri al-Youm newspaper on Monday that the Brotherhood is an “expression of a moderate Islam.”
The four assistants are complemented by a broader group of 17 “presidential advisers” also drawn from across the spectrum
“It is a diverse team, reflecting different currents of opinion, which is good,” Sharkawi told AFP after her appointment. “I don’t think that there will be conflicts within the team,” she added.
There had been mounting calls in the press for the president to establish a broader-based administration.
“Morsi must prove that he is the president of the whole country and not just the head of one tribe,” columnist Abdallah Senawi wrote in Monday’s edition of independent daily Al-Shorouk.
On August 12, Morsi had significantly boosted his authority by retiring veteran Defence Minister Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and scrapping a constitutional document that gave the military legislative and other powers.
Morsi, who took office on June 30, is the first president of Egypt to come from an Islamist camp and also the first civilian head of state since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952.