Despite win, Egypt's new president will have his hands tied
The Muslim Brotherhood has won the presidency and nearly half the seats in the Egyptian parliament, but it will still have to tread lightly with its domestic and foreign policies.
The commotion was expected. As soon as Farouk Sultan, the chairman of Egypt’s election committee, began reading out loud on live television the number of votes received by Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first Islamist president (more than 13 million), the crowd stopped him with their loud shouts − some of them happy and some angry.
Only then, in that electrifying moment, after more than an hour of hearing tiresome details of the appeals filed with the committee, did it become clear that Morsi won with a lead of slightly under 1 million votes, in a country of 85 million.
Thus unfolded the second part of the democratic saga begun on January 25, 2011, the first day of the Egyptian revolution. The first part was over last December, when the first parliament of the post-Mubarak second Egyptian republic was elected.
Morsi’s victory illustrates the nature of the Egyptian revolution on several levels. After nearly six decades in which the Muslim Brotherhood was banned by law, after three presidents’ frightful struggles against the movement, its representatives have won the presidency and control nearly half the seats in parliament.
The movement’s victory symbolizes the goal of those behind the revolution, many of them secular liberals, to rid themselves of Hosni Mubarak’s oppressive regime. Voting for Muslim Brotherhood candidates is a way of voting against the old regime.
It’s worth remembering that it wasn’t the Muslim Brotherhood that started the revolution; though it did join in, it had previously seen some of the young people involved as threatening its status. This is a revolution that was able to translate rallies in Cairo’s Tahrir Square into democratic political action in which the law and the courts had starring roles, in contrast to their role as distorted tools for carrying out the will of the ruler under the old regime. For the first time, Egyptians could say what they wanted without fear.
But the result of the presidential election shows that Egyptians are split. Morsi’s slim margin of victory − just over three percentage points − shows that the Muslim Brotherhood is not all-powerful, even if it does hold key positions. That’s also the reason why Morsi began as early as Sunday to meet with the leaders of other political movements − non-religious ones − in an effort to reach an agreement on what the next government will look like.
One possibility under discussion is appointing as prime minister someone perceived as being neutral − a candidate who does not belong to any of the movements represented in parliament. One of the names raised is that of the former head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency, Mohamed ElBaradei.
Morsi will likely appoint deputies, both for himself and the prime minister, who belong to the movements for young people and secularists that were behind the revolution.
In the face of the natural anxiety over the possibility that Egypt will become a theocracy, Morsi’s small margin of victory shows that he and his movement will have to tread lightly in their political and diplomatic conduct.
Tahrir Square, where the revolution began and where, 18 months later, hundreds of thousands of people waited to find out who their next president would be, has become a kind of popular parliament that can force its will on any Egyptian government. Not for nothing did the religious slogans and green flags from Morsi’s election campaign disappear from view just before the election.
Morsi will not be able to ignore the army’s strong standing or the need to have a good relationship with Washington − not just because of the financial aid Egypt gets but also because any Egyptian president who wants to improve his country’s geopolitical standing needs American − and Saudi − assistance.
The regional agenda of both Cairo and Washington will force Morsi, who knows America well from his studies there and the frequent meetings he had with U.S. representatives in the past year, to adopt new language − a statesmanlike language that differs from the kind that prevails in a movement.
Yes, Morsi was a founding member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Committee to Fight the Zionist Project and has called Israel “the Zionist entity.” But in the strategic decision by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party to recognize all agreements that Egypt has signed with other countries, the movement’s representatives are showing that they are sticking with the Camp David Accords.
Even if there is a hidden plan to reexamine or change the Camp David Accords, it certainly won’t be discussed any time soon. One possible outcome, as several have speculated, is that Morsi will appoint a heavyweight foreign minister who is not associated with the Muslim Brotherhood to conduct foreign policy with Israel and other countries.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s victory celebrations, and the so-called mourners’ tents of their rivals, will be replaced in the coming days with a new, risky political system. Egypt’s government institutions, supreme military council, new president and political movements must decide immediately on the country’s new constitution, parliamentary elections for the remaining 166 seats and the interim rights of the president.
According to a timetable set by the military council, the yet-to-be-selected constitution committee will be the one to come up with a constitution within three months. A month after that process is completed, Egyptians will be asked to vote on the constitution in a national referendum, and only later will it become clear what powers the president gets.
During the steaming summer months, the country will be run amid fights between the president and his supporters on the one hand and the army on the other.
On Monday, the administrative court is supposed to start debating the constitutional issues related to the change of government.