An Islamist who has repeatedly pledged to introduce sharia law was yesterday declared Egypt’s first democratically-elected president.
The Foreign Office last night described the election of Mohammed Morsi – of the once shadowy banned group, the Muslim Brotherhood – as ‘the least bad result’. But his leadership will present the West with a challenge.
During his campaign Morsi vowed to introduce tough religious laws, which raised the spectre of a ban on alcohol and even bikinis on the country’s beaches.
In recent months he has sought to tone down his rhetoric, promising to protect Egypt’s vital tourism industry.
However, there are fears the Brotherhood’s hardline traditionalists could hijack his aims.
Thousands packed into Cairo’s Tahrir Square as the US-educated engineer was named president after gaining 13.2million votes – a share of just over 51 per cent.
The historic announcement came after weeks of political tension which saw the country’s military make a grab for power.
His rival Ahmed Shafiq, 70, who was president Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, gained 48 per cent.
His supporters were seen crying in the streets as the result was announced. But there were scenes of jubilation in Tahrir Square, the birthplace of the Egyptian revolution.
People waved flags, danced and set off fire crackers, chanting ‘Allahu Akhbar’ [God is great] and ‘Egypt is free today! Egypt is free!’
William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, congratulated Morsi, saying: ‘This is an historic moment for Egypt. It will be important for the new government to stand for national unity and reconciliation, to build bridges across Egyptian society and to uphold human rights, including the rights of women and religious minorities, and the rule of law.’
The rise of an Islamist as leader of the Arab world’s most populous state will present a new challenge for the West which for years counted Mubarak as a staunch ally.
Historically the West has viewed the Brotherhood with suspicion. Under Mubarak, many of the group’s members were arrested and persecuted.
The election outcome has alarmed many secular liberals and Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority who fear an Islamic takeover.
But there was some relief last night at the result. If Shafiq had been awarded victory, there were fears of growing civil unrest.
A Foreign Office source said: ‘The Muslim Brotherhood are a different beast from Al Qaeda, they are not part of any international terror conspiracy. We are breathing a sigh of relief. It is the least bad result.’
Morsi has also pledged to stick by the Camp David peace agreement with Israel, but has warned it could be reviewed if Israel does not respect the terms of the deal.
In an effort to reassure Egyptians that the rights of minorities will not be threatened under his rule, Morsi announced an alliance with leading liberal and revolutionary groups.
He has also said he will resign as leader of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, in a gesture signalling he would be a president for all Egyptians.
Morsi was initially dismissed as uncharismatic and an unlikely winner. His success is a measure of the power of the Brotherhood movement which is popular among the poor for its record of charity work.
The win is seen as a victory for the revolution and marks the first time Egypt has elected a civilian president in 7,000 years.
‘The revolution passed an important test,’ said Yasser Ali, a spokesman for Morsi’s campaign. ‘But the road is still long.’ The long awaited results came after a tense week of uncertainty overshadowed by a military power grab that has sought to limit the powers of the incoming head of state.
Under a constitutional declaration announced by the army the powers of the new leader have been significantly curtailed. The president will not be commander in chief and the army will retain legislative authority until a new parliament is elected.
Morsi will now have to battle the military for real power, raising fears of further political tension in Egypt – and the region – over the coming months.
The army is expected to hand over power to the president in a ceremony later this week.
Is Arab spring turning into Arab winter?
This is a victory which will send shock waves throughout the Middle East, emboldening Islamic radicals from Bahrain to Syria to persist in their efforts to topple their regimes, and confirming the Israeli view that the Arab Spring has become an Arab Winter.
Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s new president, is the Arab world’s first elected Islamist head of state. He now rules a nation of 81million people. While there is rejoicing among hardline Hamas supporters in Gaza tonight, Egyptian liberals and secularists will be bitterly disappointed, especially since it was they, rather than the Muslim Brotherhood, who toppled Hosni Mubarak.
The wealthy cosmopolitan middle-classes will be shuddering inside their villas in Cairo’s rich Heliopolis suburb.
Although optimists hope that Egypt will evolve along the lines of Turkey, which has a moderate Islamic government, the reality is that it is likely to see protracted strife between a still-powerful military – which has until now held all the power – and a strong Islamist movement that will make it more like strife-torn Pakistan.
The army have a lot to lose, while the Brotherhood has everything to gain.
Morsi’s background is typical of the middle class, academic professionals who dominate the Brotherhood’s leadership. He has a doctorate in engineering from the University of Southern California, and worked at Egypt’s Zagazig University. But he is leader in name only, which is why he is known as the ‘spare tyre’. He only ran for president after the ruling Supreme Council of the Army disqualified 62-year-old businessman Khariat Al Shater, the real strategic mind within the Brotherhood.
Al Shater has been in prison four times. He and Morsi represent the conservative strain of the Brotherhood, and rule out women and Christians ever standing as president. They want Egypt to be run along the lines of Saudi Arabia, where women are covered from head to toe and banned from driving, alcohol is forbidden and sharia law is commonplace. The wives of these two men wear the niqab, which covers the face and is unusual in Egypt – except in areas where the Brotherhood’s huge charitable involvement acts like a chill draught in a room.
The military, which thanks to its vast grants from the US still retains considerable power in Egypt, has made a deal with the Brotherhood drastically reducing the new president’s untested powers.
In a sense both sides have been engaged in a game of chicken. The Brotherhood has been using its supporters to flood Tahrir Square and threatening to unleash its trades unions to paralyse an Egyptian economy already limping along because of the collapse of mass tourism.
The generals – who could always fill the streets with troops – have issued a decree which restricts what president Morsi can do.
Morsi has no power over budgets, internal affairs or the army, in a country where the defence budget is 40 per cent of revenue. He may chair a new National Defence Council, but 11 of its 16 members will be serving generals.
But while the army holds many cards, the military’s commercial and industrial interests make it highly vulnerable to charges of institutional corruption of the sort that saw the ousting of Mubarak, himself a former air force general.
Since Mubarak went, relations with Israel have become far chillier. Morsi is a fervent supporter of Israel’s enemy Hamas, the Egyptians have cut off deliveries of natural gas to Israel, and they’ve opened the Sinai border to waves of African migrants who are causing serious law and order problems for the citizens of Tel Aviv.
The world can only watch and wait to see if Israel reacts – and how this uneasy partnership between the generals and the Brotherhood plays out. Many will be fearful, however, if in time the Islamists gain the upper hand.
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