Morsi Victory in Eygpt Is a Potent Weapon for Islamists

New York Times   June 24, 2012
By David Kirkpatrick

Mr. Morsi, 60, an American-trained engineer and a former lawmaker, now stands ready to become the first non-military figure to lead Egypt in generations. But 16 months after the military took over at the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, Mr. Morsi’s victory is an ambiguous milestone in Egypt’s promised transition to democracy.

After a week of doubts, delays and fears of a coup since a public ballot count showed Mr. Morsi ahead, the generals have showed a measure of respect for some core elements of electoral democracy — they have accepted a political opponent over their ally, former Gen. Ahmed Shafik, after a vote that international monitors said was credible.

But Mr. Morsi’s recognition as president does little to resolve the larger standoff between the generals and the Brotherhood over the institutions of government and the future constitution. Two weeks before their promised date for giving up power, June 30, the generals instead shut down the democratically elected and Islamist-led Parliament, took over its powers to make laws and set budgets, decreed an interim constitution stripping the new president of most of his power and reimposed martial law by authorizing soldiers to arrest civilians. The generals also gave themselves an effective veto over provisions of a planned permanent constitution.

As recently as Sunday morning, the capital was tense with fears that the panel of Mubarak-appointed judges overseeing the vote would declare Mr. Shafik president, completing a full military coup. Banks, schools and government offices closed early, fearing violence.

Tens of thousands of Brotherhood supporters and their allies against military rule had gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square for the sixth day of a sit-in demanding that the military roll back its power grab. The throngs hushed as radios in the square began broadcasting the election commissioner’s rambling speech to introduce the official results.

Then the moment came. The square erupted as the numbers came through: Mr. Morsi had won 51.7 percent of the runoff vote.

“Morsi, Morsi!,” the crowd chanted. “Down, down with military rule!” Small fireworks were set off over the crowd, and Brotherhood supporters streamed in, swelling the crowd to perhaps 100,000 by nightfall. In a carnival atmosphere, vendors hawked cotton candy or threw pieces of fruit into the laughing crowd.

After 84 years as an often outlawed secret society struggling in the prisons and shadows of monarchs and dictators, the Brotherhood is now closer than ever to its goal of building an Islamist democracy in Egypt. “In my dreams I wanted this to happen, but it is unbelievable,” said Hudaida Hassan, a 20-year-old from Menoufiya.

Even in a victorious moment, though, the Brotherhood’s leadership acknowledged that the struggle was far from over: leaders immediately pledged to continue the sit-in and to fight on in the courts and in the streets to restore Parliament. In his first statement as president-elect, Mr. Morsi vowed to take his oath of office before the seated Parliament and not before the Supreme Constitutional Court, as the generals have decreed.

Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the chairman of the military council, congratulated Mr. Morsi. The Brotherhood’s political arm said on its Web site that the official presidential guard, who previously served Mr. Mubarak, had arrived at Mr. Morsi’s home to begin protecting him. It was a stark contrast from the days less than two years ago when the arrival of armed officers at the home of a Brotherhood leader invariably meant a trip to one of Mr. Mubarak’s jails.

Fulfilling a campaign pledge to represent all Egyptians, Mr. Morsi resigned from the Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party. State news media reported on Sunday morning that the prime minister and cabinet would resign immediately, making way for Mr. Morsi to appoint his own team. The Brotherhood had reached out to rebuild alliances with liberals and other secular activists for its contest with the generals, and Mr. Morsi pledged to name a prime minister and other top officials from outside the Brotherhood as part of a unity government.

At the same time, however, Mr. Morsi has campaigned not as an individual with a vision of his own but rather as an executor of the Brotherhood’s platform. He was the group’s second choice as nominee, put forward after the Brotherhood’s chief strategist and most influential leader, Khairat el-Shater, was disqualified. Mr. Morsi has vowed to carry out the program that Mr. Shater spent more than a year devising to reform and remake Egypt’s government ministries. Mr. Morsi and Mr. Shater have never effectively dispelled assertions that Mr. Shater would wield the true power in a Morsi government.

Even after the two-month presidential campaign, Mr. Morsi remains an unfamiliar figure to most Egyptians. He earned a doctoral degree in materials engineering at the University of Southern California in 1982 — putting him in the United States during the tumultuous years after Islamists assassinated President Anwar Sadat, leading his successor, Mr. Muabrak, to crack down on the Brotherhood.

Those who knew him in Los Angeles say Mr. Morsi never appeared notably political or religious. But he returned to teach at Zagazig University in the Nile Delta, where he became a leader in the Brotherhood and eventually was one of its first members in the Mubarak-dominated Parliament.

He was picked by higher-ups to lead the Brotherhood’s small parliamentary bloc, which then including just 18 members out of more than 500 lawmakers. He thus played a key role in the group’s first experiment in multiparty electoral democracy and coalition-building. But in subsequent years, as he was elevated to the Brotherhood’s governing board, he gained a reputation as an enforcer who discouraged voices of dissent.

When the Brotherhood adopted a hypothetical party platform in 2007 that cited Islamic tenets as requiring that neither a woman nor a non-Muslim should be eligible to be president, Mr. Morsi was a chief defender of those planks.

Since Mr. Mubarak’s ouster, the Brotherhood has jettisoned those positions from its platform. But during the campaign, Mr. Morsi said that as a personal matter he still believed the presidency should go only to a male Muslim.

Nonetheless, the jubilation over Mr. Morsi’s victory appeared to energize his supporters, and in the moment appeared to have won over even some more secular Egyptians who had stayed on the sidelines during the Brotherhood’s tug of war with the military. Alaa Aswany, a novelist who campaigned against Mr. Morsi in the runoff and has been one of the sharpest critics of the Brotherhood, congratulated him on Sunday.

“Congratulations for the Egyptian people,” Mr. Aswany wrote in an online commentary. “The will of the people was able to topple the old regime once more. Long live the revolution.”

Although it was clear as early as last Monday morning that Mr. Morsi had won more votes than Mr. Shafik, the weeklong delay in the official results stirred widespread fears that the military-led government might seek to name Mr. Shafik as a decisive blow after its sweeping steps to entrench its own power.

Before the results were announced, the capital was as tense on Sunday as on any day since the two-and-a-half-week revolt that brought down Mr. Mubarak. Army tanks and soldiers were deployed to protect the election commission, the Parliament and other institutions in preparation for possible violence. Foreign embassies warned their citizens to stay away from downtown.

Mr. Morsi’s designation as president-elect will hand the Brotherhood and its allies an important anchor in its struggle for power with the military. The Brotherhood has sought to rebuild the partnership with more secular and liberal advocates of democracy that came together in the uprising against Mr. Mubarak, and Brotherhood leaders have vowed not to hold any negotiations with the generals without the participation of the other groups in their “national front.”

In a statement, the White House referred to that promise, congratulating Mr. Morsi even as it called on him to reach out to Egypt’s non-Islamists: “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 also called on the military to allow a full transition to a democratic government.

Official reaction in Israel was muted, congratulating Egypt on its election. Israeli officials have watched the roiling events next door with trepidation, reflecting concern that the Egyptian generals’ long honoring of a peace treaty with Israel would be up for reassessment under a new government.

In Gaza, however, where the Brotherhood’s ally Hamas is predominant, wild celebrations broke out. Gunmen took to firing long volleys in the air, leading to the death of a 24-year-old man and the wounding of two girls in Rafah, near the border crossing with Egypt.On its own, the Brotherhood’s control of the presidency will do nothing to reduce the fierce polarization of Egyptian society. On Saturday night, a counterprotest that reportedly grew to over 10,000 people took place in a neighborhood with a heavy concentration of military personnel, demonstrating in support of the ruling generals, Mr. Shafik and secular government. Mr. Shafik, Mr. Mubarak’s last prime minister, campaigned with the support of the old ruling party elite as a new strongman who could restore order after 16 months of chaos.

Earlier in the day, a group of secular political leaders and lawmakers who call themselves liberals held a televised news conference to declare their support for the generals and the dissolution of the Brotherhood-led Parliament. They praised the shutdown of Parliament as a victory for law and order, citing an unusually rushed court decision. (The Brotherhood has respected the court ruling but challenged its implementation.)

The secular politicians also accused the Brotherhood of “hijacking” the revolution and called the group a threat to the “civil” character of the state. They dismissed the Brotherhood’s pledges to govern in coalition, respecting individual and minority rights, and instead accused the group of plotting to impose religious rule.

Incongruously, given Washington’s history of antagonism with the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, the secular block argued that the United States was improperly attempting to sway the presidential race in favor of the Brotherhood, although American officials and the embassy here have said they support the democratic process regardless of the result.

Mr. Shafik was silent on Sunday. But a handful of his supporters held their own angry protests to denounce the election commission’s declaration.

Reporting was contributed by Mayy El Sheikh, Liam Stack and Kareem Fahim in Cairo, and Fares Akram from Gaza.

 See original NY Times article HERE

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