CAIRO – Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has given himself high grades on his handling of some of the nation's pressing problems, spending much of a nearly two-hour speech late Saturday talking in painstaking detail about fuel, trash and bread, while sidestepping key issues in the nation's transition to democratic rule.
But the speech in many ways was also as much about style as it was about substance, and the 61-year-old Morsi, the first freely elected president in Egypt's history, used his address to project the image of an energetic leader in touch with the needs of the people. That appeared aimed at drawing a sharp contrast with his 83-year-old predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, who was widely perceived in the waning years of his long rule as out of touch with reality.
Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest and best-organized political group, made a slew of promises during his campaign, vowing to end Egypt's fuel shortages, improve the quality of the heavily subsidized bread, check surging crime, clean the streets of trash and ease traffic congestion.
Speaking to a crowd of tens of thousands in Cairo at Egypt's largest sports stadium, Morsi claimed that scientific methods used to gauge progress on the five issues gave him a success rate of 80 percent on bread, 60 percent on traffic, 40 percent on garbage collection, 85 percent on fuel and 70 percent on security.
But he also sought to stress the magnitude of the challenges he faces, and hit back at critics who charge that he was spending too much money and time traveling abroad and that his habit of offering Friday prayers at a different mosque every week was costly and disrupted traffic on what is supposed to be the quietest day of the week.
He said his nine foreign trips to date — Saudi Arabia (twice), China, Iran, Belgium, Ethiopia, Turkey, the United States and Italy — secured for Egypt pledges of billions of dollars of investment and monetary aid and that his Friday prayers, which entails the deployment of hundreds of policemen and troops, were cost free.
"I am still living in a rented apartment," he said to bolster his argument that he was not abusing his authority. "If anyone sees me driving a new car that is not owned by the state should report it."
"They are trying to find a hole in a seamless white dress," he said of his critics. "We have a glorious future ahead of us."
But his speech touched only in passing on the simmering dispute over the drafting of a new constitution. Liberals, women and minority Christians say the process has been hijacked by Morsi's fellow Islamists. He also did not touch on the restrictions that critics say have been placed on freedom of expression in the three months since he took office and the return of abuses by the police — documented by human rights groups.
Morsi also offered no vision for the future of the nation, where nearly half of its estimated 83 million people live below or just above the poverty line. He declared himself married to the fight against corruption, but offered no ways to improve basic services such as medical care, education or housing for the poor.
The president's critics remained unimpressed, by both the speech and the successes he touted in it.
"He spoke about the importance of reducing energy subsidies but didn't tell us how he plans to do so. He promised to eradicate the former regime's corruption, but didn't say how he will prevent corruption in the future," Ziad Bahaa-Eldin, a former lawmaker for a social democratic party, wrote in a commentary on his Facebook page.
"The speech was spirited and designed to reflect strength, popular support and to mobilize public opinion behind the president. ... But in terms of substance, if offered nothing memorable."
Many Egyptians acknowledge that crime rates have dipped since Morsi took office, but remain high when compared to before Mubarak's ouster in last year's popular uprising. Some types of fuel remain in short supply and long lines outside gas stations are common. Traffic remains a problem, particularly in Cairo, a city of some 18 million people, and the streets are still littered with piles of festering garbage.
"The Morsi Meter," a website tracking the Islamist leader's achievements in his first 100 days in office, offered a different take on Morsi's performance in his first 100 days in office.
It said the president's achievements have so far been restricted to implementing penalties for fuel smugglers, raising awareness in speeches and through the media about the importance of proper disposal of trash, increasing the value of flour used to make bread, removing road blocks impeding traffic and implementing a reward system for positive performance of police officers.
The venue of Morsi's speech and the day on which he delivered it appeared to be an attempt by the Islamist leader to associate his presidency with something greater and perhaps more enduring than the ballot box that gave him a narrow victory over Mubarak's last prime minister in a June election.
Morsi chose the 39th anniversary of Egypt's last war with Israel to give the longest speech of his presidency — 1 hour and 50 minutes — seemingly to try to take his place in history as Egypt's first ever civilian president after nearly six decades of de facto military rule.
But Morsi may have overplayed his hand when he drove around the Cairo stadium's track in an open-top car, waving to the crowd like a victorious general. The grand entry and the long speech may also have been designed to stake a claim to something that Morsi was not part of — the high-regard Egyptians have for their troops who crossed the Suez Canal to storm Israeli lines on the east bank of the waterway at the start of the 1973 war with Israel.
The war led to coining in Egypt of the phrase "crossing" as synonymous with victory, and Morsi said the uprising that toppled Mubarak's 29-year rule last year was the "second crossing" after the one in 1973. The third one, he added, was his taking office as Egypt's first freely elected president.
"He turned the national day (October 6) into a platform for his Freedom and Justice party and the presidency," prominent analyst and columnist Abdullah el-Sinawi said. "After nearly 40 years, the occasion has become a platform for the Brotherhood and a show of its strength."