CAIRO – Egypt's Islamist president Mohammed Morsi on Monday named a team of 21 advisers and aides that includes three women and two Christians and a large number of Islamist-leaning figures, backing off campaign promises to appoint a Christian and a woman as vice presidents.
The move is the latest by Morsi, a longtime member of the Muslim Brotherhood who was inaugurated in late June, to establish his authority and break with the era of ousted President Hosni Mubarak by forming his own leadership.
Morsi's office has sought to depict him as independent of the Brotherhood and as a leader who wants to bring a wider political spectrum behind him, including liberals — but the Brotherhood still holds the preponderance of power in his administration.
In midst of a fierce presidential election campaign earlier this year, Morsi sought to broaden his support and allay fears of Brotherhood dominance by promising to appoint a youth, a woman and a Christian to vice president posts. The promise brought an outcry from ultraconservative Islamists known as Salafis who said they would not accept a Christian or woman vice president, since they say neither is allowed to serve as head of state.
Since Morsi's inauguration, some Brotherhood officials have contended he was forced into the promises, signaling that he would likely back down. Earlier this month, Morsi appointed a senior judge, Mahmoud Mekki, as vice president. When asked, Morsi's spokesman Yasser Ali told reporters that there will be only one vice president for the time being.
Instead, Ali on Monday announced the formation of Morsi's "presidential team," which includes four senior aides and a 17-member council of advisers, which includes seven figures seen as political liberals and 10 who have Islamist leanings of various degrees.
The rolling back of the promises reflects Morsi's growing confidence as a president who holds "super powers" exceeding those of his predecessors, said Nabil Abdel-Fatah, a scholar with Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. Morsi holds both executive power and legislative authority after he sidelined the top military generals who ruled Egypt after Mubarak's ouster on Feb. 11. 2011. The generals had dissolved parliament and taken on legislative powers, so when they were sidelined, Morsi seized the power to make laws — a power he has used once so far.
"The announcement of the new team has nothing to do with the promises Morsi made before," said Abdel-Fatah. "Those chose will pose no challenge to the president ... this is only for cosmetic purposes."
Abdel-Fatah said the appointments suggested Morsi does not want to share powers with a vice president. "This is just another sign that we are heading to a deadlock with the Brotherhood insisting on monopolizing power," he said.
The four senior aides include Pakinam el-Sharkawi, a female political scientist who will be in charge of "political issues" and Coptic Christian writer Samer Morcus, whose title is "aide for democratic transition." The oterhs are a senior Brotherhood member, Essam Hadad, who will be the aide for foreign relations and international cooperation and a leading Salafi, Emad Abdel-Ghafour, who was named the president's aide for "society outreach."
The 17-member council includes two women and a Christian, Rafiq Habib, who is deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm Freedom and Justice party and one of the few Christian members of the Islamist group.
The council includes six members of the Muslim Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau, the group's top executive body, and three other figures seen as Islamist-leaning.
Ali, the spokesman, did not say what the council's role would be but said it will "meet regularly."
Ahmed Maher, a co-founder of the secular April 6 youth group, which engineered last year's anti-Mubarak uprising and which has thrown its backing behind Morsi, said that is group was watching how much the president keeps his promises "and we will hold him accountable later on when the time comes."
Though their role is still vague, but Maher believes the aides and the advisers can help Morsi reform state institutions and break away from old regime policies.
"They will be his eyes to carry reforms and institutional shake-ups," said Maher, who comes under criticism for siding by Morsi.
The list did not include three figures that Morsi sidelined in the past month and named as advisers — the former military chief and defense minister, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, his deputy Gen. Sami Anan, and former Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri. That could suggest that their advisory appointments were largely symbolic.