In a reversal of fortunes unthinkable a year and a half ago, an Islamist jailed by ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has succeeded him as president of the biggest Arab nation in a victory at the ballot box which has historic consequences for Egypt and the Middle East.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi will not enjoy the extent of modern, pharaonic powers exercised by Mubarak: Those have been curtailed by a military establishment which will decide just how much he will be able to do in government.
Still, the US-trained engineer’s victory in the country’s first free presidential election breaks a tradition of domination by men from the armed forces, which have provided every Egyptian leader since the overthrow of the monarchy 60 years ago, and installs in office a group that drew on 84 years of grassroots activism to catapult Morsi into the presidency.
He has promised a moderate, modern Islamist agenda to steer Egypt into a new democratic era where autocracy will be replaced by transparent government that respects human rights and revives the fortunes of a powerful Arab state long in decline.
Morsi is promising an “Egyptian renaissance with an Islamic foundation.”
Yet the stocky, bespectacled 60-year old, appears something of an accidental president: He was only flung into the race at the last moment by the disqualification on a technicality of Khairat al-Shater, by far the group’s preferred choice.
With a stiff and formal style, Morsi, who has a doctorate from the University of Southern California, cast himself as a reluctant latecomer to the race, who cited religious fear of judgement day as one of his reasons for running. He struggled to shake off his label as the Brotherhood’s “spare tire.”
Questions remain over the extent to which Morsi will operate independently of other Brotherhood leaders once in office: His manifesto was drawn up by the group’s policymakers. The role al-Shater might play has been one focus of debate in Egypt.
“I will treat everyone equally and be a servant of the Egyptian people,” Morsi said at his campaign headquarters in Cairo shortly after polling ended, a week before his victory was confirmed by the Mubarak-era body overseeing the vote.
However, many Egyptians, not least the Christian minority, remain suspicious of Morsi and even more so of the group he represents. Anti-Brotherhood sentiment, fueled by both a hostile media and some of the group’s policies, has soared in recent weeks.
Former Egyptian prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, the former general he defeated, won nearly as many votes as Morsi, signaling that Egypt is a nation that is anything but united around the idea of Brotherhood rule. Morsi won a little less than a quarter of the first-round vote last month.
That a man who served as Mubarak’s last prime minister was so close to victory has been seen as one sign of failure by the Brotherhood — which has described itself as the victim of a vicious campaign orchestrated by its enemies.