A new president, what now?

Egypt has a new president and it is its first democratically elected one at that. But what does this mean for the country?

The country held its breath yesterday ahead of the announcement that Mohamed Morsi, from the Muslim Brotherhood, had been declared the winner of a closely contested runoff presidential election.  The sigh of relief that followed might have been less audible than the cheering and chanting coming from Tahrir but there was a real sense of relief and feeling that a turning point may have been reached.

[I’ll add the following caveat that these observations are offered by a foreigner living in Cairo who has a limited understanding of the current political situation.]

The official press conference to announce the outcome of the elections was scheduled for 3.00pm yesterday afternoon and as the hour drew near the country came to a standstill. Workplaces closed early and the streets of Cairo were clear of its notorious traffic. Muslim Brotherhood supporters packed into Tahrir Square in the tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands. Elsewhere across the country people were glued to television and radio sets as they waited for the presser to start. The suspense grew as 3.00pm came and went. Finally at 3.30pm, the head of the Election Commission, Farqouq Sultan, began his address. After a 45 minute speech (which Al jazeera first gave up live translating and then finally cut away from all together), he finally after declared Morsi the winner by a narrow margin over Ahmed Shafiq, a representative of the old Mubarak regime .

Tahrir Square erupted in an ecstasy of cheering. As fireworks exploded grown men cried, and across the country people took to the streets carrying Morsi banners and waving Egyptian flags. Beyond the feelings of joy there was also a feeling of relief and a hope that Egypt might finally be approaching the end of its transition period. Amid rife speculation over the causes of the delays in the announcement of the election results (originally scheduled for Thursday), a clear winner was desperately needed. And regardless of personal preference, many feared a Shafiq victory would have resulted in more protests and violence. So while pundits ridiculed the duration of the speech, in light of the speculation about possible behind the scenes machinations, it was prudent of Election Commission to lay out its detailed findings and a breakdown of the numbers ahead of announcing the winner.

Definitely there is a sense that the people have spoken, but more generally there’s hope that a new president will bring much-needed stability to a country in which the economy has nearly flat-lined during the last year-and-a-half. During the revolution ‘the people’s’ demands were articulated as ‘bread, freedom and social justice,’ and for the majority of people, bread is still the pressing issue.

An Islamic state?

Overseas much has been made of the election of an Islamist president. While it was a novelty here in Egypt to hear a presidential speech peppered with religious references, it came as no surprise; the fact is the majority of Egyptians support an Islamic Government of some kind. Naturally this is of concern to the Coptic and secular minority who fear an Islamic majority abrogating their rights, but it remains to be seen to what extent Morsi’s statement that he will be a president for all Egyptians will dovetail with his Islamic agenda.

The membership of the Muslim Brotherhood, while being moderately Islamist, is also known for being made up of wealthy businessmen. Without suggesting that making a fortune and running a country is the same thing, it seems reasonable to hope that pressing economic issues might be the focus of the first term of governance rather than imposing widespread religious decrees.

In particular, many make the argument that the Muslim Brotherhood are unlikely to act on hot-button moral issues such as alcohol or segregated bathing at beaches for fear of negatively impacting tourist numbers, already way down on pre-revolution figures, especially  given the importance of tourism in the Egyptian economy. On the other hand, others fear that populist sectarian policies could be enacted as a way of distracting or appeasing the majority in the event of failure to instigate meaningful structural reform. The most likely outcome is probably a long term and gradual creeping shift towards a moderate Islamist state.

The elephant in the room

While Egypt now has a president, there is still no constitution, and the Supreme Constitutional Court has dissolved the recently elected Parliament. And looking beyond the transition to civilian power, the interim military government , the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), has been acting more and more overtly to curtail the boundaries of civilian governance.
In an annex constitutional declaration made by SCAF last week, the military council granted itself a share of presidential prerogatives, broad legislative powers and oversight to appoint the committee to draft the new constitution, making it clear that the army is unwilling to cede control of a vast and secretive military-industrial complex (that makes up something in the region of a third of the economy) to civilian government. This was called a soft-coup by many.
While Morsi professed his admiration and appreciation for the armed forces in his first presidential speech last night, behind the scenes the Muslim Brotherhood has been in negotiations with SCAF over the future role of the military in Egyptian society.

These talks held last week were the source of much conspiracy theory in Egypt, with speculation that the presidency itself was being negotiated for. The fear was that the military might rig the election in favour of Shafiq if they couldn’t reach some agreement with the Muslim Brotherhood. Given the extent to which SCAF has already acted to clip the wings of civilian power this would probably have been unnecessary and both sides denied that the presidency was on the bargaining table. Both sides did confirm though that negotiations were held over the wording of the annex constitutional declaration and the status of the dissolved Parliament. The Brotherhood hope that the Supreme Constitutional Court decision might be reversed allowing for an at least partial recall of Parliament. The fact that a judicial decision could be the subject of political negotiation does more than hint at the need for judicial reform in the country.

Challenges ahead

Over the past 80 years the Muslim Brotherhood has evolved from an underground illegal organisation (Morsi himself was imprisoned in 2006) into the preeminent political force in Egypt. During its history it has demonstrated its effectiveness at organising and mobilising widespread grassroots support.  As an underdog opposition group the Brotherhood was adept at blaming others for Egypt’s problems; it remains to see whether it will maintain this tactic now that it holds the reigns of power. For while it holds the presidency, and by right a near majority in the Parliament, in the shadowy world of Egyptian politics, there are no shortage of enemies. The Brotherhood has remained outwardly diplomatic towards SCAF, but it’s not inconceivable that this relationship could sour as they grapple for power. Then there are of course ‘outside forces’, a seldom-defined catch-all term for those responsible for all of Egypt’s ills.

For those disheartened by the outcome of the revolution, it’s worth viewing the presidential election as one step in the reformation of Egypt, not the final destination. And while the West may be disappointed that democratic elections didn’t produce a secular Government, it’s also worth asking what is more important – western liberal values or representative government? Egyptians are a pragmatic people, and if they find this government unacceptable this will have the chance to vote them out again – the genie is out of the lamp now and it is unlikely that they would accept a return to authoritarian government. There is a long road ahead in rebuilding Egypt, but for a civilization that’s as old as the pyramids, what’s a few more years?

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