CAIRO — The historic election of Egypt’s first Islamist president collided immediately with the political reality that the ruling military council has amassed legislative and executive powers in a strategy to block the Muslim Brotherhood from controlling the Arab world’s most populous nation.
Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi defeated Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister to serve deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, the national elections commission announced Sunday. The race polarized the country and foreshadowed the political maneuverings certain to shape Egypt’s incendiary transition to democracy after decades of autocratic rule.
Morsi’s ascendancy was tempered by the army’s recent move to reduce the president to a figurehead by limiting his authority over the national budget, military leadership and power to declare war. A court ruling this month that dissolved the Islamist-led parliament allowed the military to seize lawmaking privileges even as it angles to further cement its grip by guiding the drafting of a new constitution.
But when the results of the June 16-17 runoff were announced, cheers and fireworks erupted among thousands of Morsi supporters camped in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. It was a rare moment of celebration, but it didn’t linger, as activists vowed they would continue their sit-in until the army relinquishes power.
The landmark victory — Morsi won 51.7% of the vote — was the culmination of an 84-year effort by the Brotherhood, which maintains a network of religious and social programs to build a potent political front. That ambition is at the heart of the conflict 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 since early 2011.
Morsi’s victory symbolizes a change nearly as strong as the upheaval that swept Egypt in the 1950s, when a military coup ended colonial rule and heralded a nationalism championed by President Gamal Abdel Nasser. But Morsi, known as the “spare tire” because he was the Brotherhood’s second choice for a presidential candidate, lacks the charisma of Nasser and has relied on the organizational skills of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party to advance his aims.
“I am the president of all Egyptians,” Morsi said in his first national address as he sought to swiftly rally a scarred, fractious country. He praised the army, reached out to Mubarak’s onetime notorious security services and spoke of kinship with train conductors and taxi drivers. “All Egyptians are my family.... The moment has come for the nation to receive its dignity.”
The California-educated conservative Islamist will, at least in the short term, seek to calm critics in the U.S., Europe and Arab states in the Persian Gulf. Morsi has called Israelis “vampires” but has pledged that the Brotherhood is committed to Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel that has become a cornerstone of efforts to ease tensions in the Middle East. What is uncertain is whether he is inclined to emulate the progressive, entrepreneurial Islam of Turkey or tilt toward a less Western leaning theocracy-based government.
Egyptian security forces braced for possible violence after Morsi, a political prisoner under Mubarak, was declared the winner. Fears arose that Shafik loyalists, including those with links to internal intelligence services, would attack Brotherhood members celebrating across the country.
Shouts of “Morsi! Morsi!” echoed out of the square and along the Nile where Egyptian flags flew from car windows and men wept in joy and disbelief.
“Defeating Ahmed Shafik is a defeat of Mubarak’s regime,” tweeted Khaled Ali, a labor lawyer and former presidential candidate. “The revolution continues.”
Shafik’s announced 48.3% of the vote, however, showed that voters remained as divided as the two candidates. Coptic Christians and others worry that the Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafis want to gradually impose a strict interpretation of sharia, or Islamic law, on the nation. Thousands of Copts left Egypt after the parliamentary elections, and those remaining, who make up about 10% of the population, stand behind the army.
President Obama called Morsi on Sunday to congratulate him and underscore America’s continued support of Egypt’s transition to democracy.
In a statement, the White House said that Morsi should “take steps at this historic time to advance national unity by reaching out to all parties and constituencies in consultations about the formation of a new government.”
“We believe in the importance of the new Egyptian government upholding universal values, and respecting the rights of all Egyptian citizens — including women and religious minorities such as Coptic Christians,” the statement says.
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, Copts and other non-Muslims. In recent months, the Brotherhood’s appeal has suffered because of its erratic handling of parliament and criticism that it cared more about its political fortunes than advancing the revolution.
After the election results were made public Sunday, Morsi resigned from the Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice party in a bid to show that he represents all Egyptians. But the prospect of a Brotherhood loyalist moving into the presidential palace — the domain of former military men — was once unthinkable for a group whose members were persecuted and tortured in Mubarak’s jails.
The vote made clear the Brotherhood’s political dominance but raised questions over whether Morsi can convince a skeptical bloc of revolutionaries that he will fulfill the democratic ideals of the revolution that brought down his corrupt predecessor. Morsi was arrested during those protests, but for many Egyptians he does not personify a spirit of change.
Morsi, 60, who received an engineering degree at USC, will have to navigate sensitive political terrain by keeping the generals at bay and unifying a country frayed by months of unrest, economic turmoil and rising crime.
He promised throughout the campaign to bring about a “renaissance with an Islamic foundation” in a nation where more than 40% of the population lives on $2 or less a day. He appears attuned to the nation’s financial woes and understands that his popularity could plummet if he fails to create new jobs and regain billions of dollars in lost tourism and foreign investments.
In his address, Morsi told fellow Egyptians that he felt a “heavy responsibility” but “with our determination and unity and love for one another” Egypt will build a future worthy of comparison with the accomplishments of its ancient past.
Thus far, the Brotherhood has been outflanked the military, which has vowed to step aside by July 1. Its disbanding of the recently elected Islamist-dominated parliament means Morsi has no legislative ally; there is also the possibility that he may serve as president only until new elections are held after a constitution is written, which could be in several months.
The army’s tactics were evident in recent days when the Brotherhood reportedly negotiated 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 rival from building an Islamic state and threatening the army’s stature and sprawling business interests.
But the military, which receives $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid, did cede to the popular will and possibly gave the Brotherhood political legitimacy to expand its base. The Cabinet of the military-backed interim government was expected to immediately resign so Morsi could appoint his ministers.
Since its founding by a schoolteacher in 1928, the Brotherhood has aspired to this moment. It has gone through spasms of militant radicalism — some of its members laid the blueprint for the jihad later espoused by Al Qaeda — and was involved in the attempted assassination of Nasser. It rejected violence against the state decades ago, and its social and religious programs, including schools and clinics, filled a chasm left by Egypt’s neglected government programs.
Morsi epitomizes the core of the Brotherhood membership — middle-class, educated professionals seeking to instill Islam in a country they feel has long been manipulated by Western media and U.S. regional policy. But the group’s opaque structure makes it difficult to discern whether its leadership is more conservative or moderate. Many young and progressive members have left the group and others are urging the Brotherhood to become more attuned to a changing Arab world.
The election between Morsi and Shafik was marred by accusations of fraud by both sides, including stuffed ballot boxes and forged signatures. Morsi won by just under 900,000 votes. The news was announced after a rambling, tedious speech by Farouq Sultan, head of the elections commission, who spoke of the intense pressure the board felt in administering the country’s first free poll.
“A war was waged against us from different political parties falsely accusing us of undermining the elections process,” said Sultan. After he finished, and the results echoed through loudspeakers, a wave of euphoria swept Tahrir Square.