In Egypt, a Victory for Democracy but Fear for the Future

The Muslim Brotherhood still need to secure its victory
Egyptians celebrate the election of their new president, Mohammed Morsi, in Cairo. Photograph by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

As crowds gathered in Tahrir Square on Sunday, setting off fireworks, chanting and honking horns, to celebrate the victory of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi’s ascent to the presidency, the results of the real battle for power in Egypt remain to be seen. Though the office of the presidency now is in the hands of a civilian, the task of wresting power from the military caretaker government is far from over.

The new president enters office with vastly curtailed powers. Groups remain pitted against the governing Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to roll back a slew of last-minute power grabs launched by the military government two weeks ago. The Brotherhood, which had escalated its rhetoric against the SCAF during the campaign period, is now under the microscope.

“So many questions remain unanswered that what can best be said is that either SCAF and the Brotherhood have worked out a deal of some sort or the political jousting has only just begun,” wrote Issandr El Amrani, a popular blogger on Egyptian politics. “Both the Brothers and SCAF have positioned themselves in a manner in which backing down from their respective positions on the question of parliament and the Supplemental Constitutional Declaration would be a loss of face.”

Tensions ran high for two weeks, when the SCAF assumed legislative responsibilities after shutting down the Islamist-controlled Parliament, announced a Supplemental Constitutional Declaration that drastically reduced presidential powers, and gave themselves the ability to veto articles of drafts of Egypt’s new constitution. They also reintroduced martial law, allowing soldiers to arrest civilians. Critics called their actions a soft coup.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the most powerful political player in Egypt, has on the surface refused to accept any of these decisions, staging a sit-in in Tahrir Square and issuing aggressive statements to the media, all the while vowing to pressure the military government to rescind their declarations. It was a rare move, as the pragmatic group is more generally known for cutting deals with the regime rather than going toe-to-toe.

Last week, with the possibility of a victory by Ahmed Shafiq, the other candidate in the run-off election who is widely viewed as aligned with the military, the Brotherhood showed a willingness to work with the revolutionary groups it had mostly ignored since the uprising against Mubarak. Morsi pledged to form a national salvation government to include secular politicians, Christians, and women.

“The big question is: Can they build a broader, more inclusive front that can effectively challenge SCAF’s grip on power?” asks Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. “Now that fear [of Shafiq’s victory] has passed, is there still enough that binds [the opposition groups] together? I do think the Brotherhood has at least implicitly acknowledged the mistakes of recent months and they have tried to strike a more conciliatory tone, and the recognition that they can’t do this alone because they are fighting a very challenging adversary: SCAF and the old regime.”

To add to the challenges of running a country with a crumbling economy, President Morsi won with a narrow margin, garnering 51.7 percent of the vote. He had promised to be the president of all Egyptians during his first address to the nation Sunday night.

“The game was being played almost like a game of poker on both sides,” says Hani Shukrallah, managing editor of the English-language online version of the Al Ahram newspaper. “If we have reached a compromise, that’s a bit helpful for healing the deep schisms [within] society. We have a society that’s been split down the middle, with enormous polarization. Most of the people who voted for Morsi did so out of dread [of] Shafiq.”

On a side street leading to Tahrir Square on Sunday night, Ehab El Shawi led his three children to the epicenter of the celebration in the birthplace of Egypt’s uprising. Like many, he was caught between rejoicing at the idea of a new president and the reality of the office’s lack of power. “This is the first time all Egyptian people made a choice in 7,000 years to elect a normal Egyptian citizen. This is the first time we have freedom in more than 60 years,” El Shawi said happily of the first non-military president in Egypt’s history.

“But we have to change all the decisions taken during the presidential elections and force the powers to ensure Dr. Morsi will have all the power to make Egypt a modern country,” he added. “We still need to take Egypt back from the old regime.”

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