CAIRO -- An Islamist was declared Egypt’s first freely elected president in history in a divisive poll that highlighted the sharpening battle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the nation’s secular military rulers over the political future of the Arab world’s most populous state.
Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi defeated Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister to serve deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, in last week’s run-off election by 51.7% to 48.3% of the vote, the national elections commission announced Sunday. The race, marred by charges of fraud on both sides, polarized the country and re-ignited protests after the military delayed announcing the results for days.
Morsi’s election is tempered by the army’s recent move to significantly limit the powers of the presidency regarding the national budget, military oversight and declaring war. Following a court ruling this month to dissolve the Islamist-controlled parliament, the military also seized legislative powers and is angling to cement its legal authority over the nation by guiding the drafting of a new constitution.
Morsi’s historic victory was the culmination of the Brotherhood’s 84-year-old goal of expanding its vast network of religious and social programs into political power. The new president symbolizes the long, bloody and still unresolved struggle between political Islam and a secular old guard that is certain to influence governments emerging from rebellions that have shaken the Middle East and North Africa for more than 16 months.
Cheers and fireworks erupted among thousands of Morsi supporters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Egyptian security forces braced for possible violence after Morsi, a former political prisoner, was announced the winner. There were fears that Shafik loyalists, including those with links to domestic intelligence services, would instigate attacks on Brotherhood members and activists celebrating across the country.
The prospect of a bearded Brotherhood member moving into the presidential palace – since the 1950s the domain of former military men – was once unthinkable. It has re-affirmed the Brotherhood’s new political dominance and marked a fresh direction for a troubled country, much of which is skeptical that the Brotherhood or the remnants of the former government speak to the democratic ideals that propelled the revolution that brought down Mubarak.
Morsi is president but the military is the nation’s master. That was evident in recent days when the Brotherhood -– despite an election Morsi had won -– had to negotiate a power sharing formula with the generals over fears that the army might name Shafik, a former air force commander, the new leader. The maneuver revealed the generals’ determination to prevent a new political force from tugging the country closer to an Islamic state while threatening the army’s stature and sprawling business interests.
An American educated engineer, Morsi, 60, will quickly have to navigate sensitive political terrain by keeping the generals at bay and unifying a country of 82 million frayed by months of unrest, economic turmoil, rising crime and a sense from activists, leftists and nationalists that no inspiring voice rose from the rebellion that ousted Mubarak.
The Brotherhood last week joined a new “national front” with other political factions, including one led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, and vowed that Morsi’s Cabinet would be inclusive and respect the civil rights of women, Christians and other non-Muslims. The strategy sought to broaden the Brotherhood’s appeal, which had been set back in recent months by its erratic handling of parliament and criticism that it cared more about its political fortunes than advancing the revolution.
The new president, a conservative Islamist, will also, at least in the short term, likely move to allay skeptics in the U.S., Europe and Arab states in the Persian Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia. Morsi has referred to Israelis as “vampires” but has said that for now the Brotherhood is committed to Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
-- Jeffrey Fleishman
Photo: An image taken from Egypt State TV of Tahrir Square in Cairo as supporters of Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi react Sunday to the announcement of his presidential election victory. Credit: AP Photo/Egypt State TV