Islamist Morsy Wins Egyptian Presidency, but Will the Military Cede Any Power?

Egypt’s most powerful Islamist organization has pulled off a once unthinkable feat, propelling itself from the niche of a banned opposition group to the seat of power. But some say that throwing a wider lens on this twist reveals a military still very much in control

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Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images

Egyptians celebrate the election of their new President, Mohamed Morsy, on June 24, 2012, in Cairo

An Islamist has won the first democratic presidential election in Egypt’s history. After a week of tense delays, and a nearly hour-long speech by the head of Egypt’s Supreme Presidential Election Commission on Sunday, the commission declared Mohamed Morsy, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the winner, having edged out his competitor Ahmed Shafik, a former Prime Minister of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, by only a slim margin.

In just under a year and a half of tumultuous politics, the country’s most powerful Islamist organization has pulled off a once unthinkable feat, propelling itself from the battered niche of a banned opposition group to the seat of power in the Arab world’s largest country. Thousands of Brotherhood supporters poured into Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Sunday in anticipation of the announcement — many promising a large-scale protest in the case of a Shafik win. But when the announcement came in the Brotherhood’s favor, the crowd erupted in a tidal wave of cheers and fireworks, tears and hugs.

The popular uprising that forced an end to Mubarak’s 30-year rule also ushered months of turbulent politics under the leadership of his military junta, and many of Morsy’s supporters said on Sunday that his victory at the polls signals a larger victory for their hamstrung revolution. “I am here to celebrate Morsy’s victory,” said Mohamed Abdel Aal, a stockbroker. “This means victory for the revolution and for the Islamic current.” Indeed, in a near perfect resurrection of the old-regime narrative, Egypt’s first democratic presidential race had pitted the military regime in the form of Shafik against its traditional opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood. And the fact that a civilian has replaced a military regime as an Arab head of state marks a monumental new chapter in the ever evolving story of the Arab Spring.

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But political analysts and international election monitors say that throwing a wider lens on this unprecedented twist in Egyptian politics reveals a military that is still very much in control. Days before the election went to a runoff vote this month, the country’s Supreme Court — long a tool of the ousted regime — ruled to dissolve the country’s first democratically elected parliament, which had been dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Shortly thereafter, on the eve of the ballot count, the junta issued another sweeping decree that seized the powers of the now dissolved legislative branch for itself, declared its plan to retain full control of the armed forces and gave itself the power to appoint a committee to draft the new constitution.

As the celebratory crowd swelled into the hundreds of thousands in Tahrir Square on Sunday night, some Brotherhood officials cautioned their supporters against going home too early, calling for a continuing sit-in until the military voids its decree. “This is a turning point for Egypt, but that does not mean that we are done and we go home now,” said Ahmed Gomaa, a construction engineer. “We want the parliament back, and we want the President to have all his power.” Such rhetoric could lead to a violent confrontation with the military in the days ahead.

But some analysts say the Brotherhood is unlikely to push its luck. Morsy won the election by a margin of less than a million votes out of the 50 million cast, leaving a sizable number of Egyptians (including some 48% of those who voted) feeling nervous and sidelined by the prospect of an Islamist government. “It will be an Islamic system, a religious administration with the Muslim Brotherhood surrounding him,” says Sameh Saif al-Yazal, a retired military general and a political analyst, echoing a fear that has been widely propagated by state media and the Shafik campaign. “He’ll impose Islamic law.”

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But with the legislature, the armed forces and possibly even the people power out of his control, Morsy is unlikely to be able to impose much of anything, says Joshua Stacher, a political scientist and Egypt expert at Kent State University. Not only has the military eliminated key components of presidential power, but the sprawling bureaucracy that Morsy will inherit is still “decidedly connected” to the old regime and may prove to be a serious obstacle to any initiatives that Morsy tries to undertake in the months ahead, Stacher adds. “What this does is it has made SCAF [the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] kinglike. It allows them to have this expanse of executive and legislative power, while the blame will be shifted onto the people who emerge from the ballot box,” he says. “It enables the Muslim Brotherhood, and particularly Morsy, to become the primary focus of blame whenever Egypt’s continuing structural problems — like the economy and tourism — are not fixed.”

So while Morsy’s win may have averted a disastrous confrontation in the streets, the Brotherhood may also have walked into the savviest of traps. The U.S.-educated engineer promised in his Sunday-night acceptance speech to work toward national unity, and he offered a subtle olive branch to the military, saying: “With its people, its armed forces and its great history, Egypt is able to defend itself and stop any aggression or even any thought of aggression against it.” But conciliatory or not, Stacher says, Morsy has been set up to fail. If he proves submissive, the generals may let him stay in office, but he’ll lose credibility in the streets. On the other hand, he says, “if Morsy uses the office of the presidency to garner international support and build a coalition inside Egypt, that would be very threatening to the SCAF and they would look for some kind of legal booby trap to undermine him.”

It’s a catch-22, but the dissolution of Egypt’s elected parliament may have served as a useful example. Sameh el-Sorrogy, a top judge in Egypt’s influential Judges’ Club, puts it this way: the problem with the parliament was that it challenged the courts. “Some members of parliament tried to direct the public against the judiciary,” he says, particularly after MPs objected to Mubarak’s weak sentencing. Morsy, he adds, appears more willing to play by the rules. It may make for a toothless President. But, as some Egyptians have reasoned, at least it’s an elected one, and that’s a first.

— With reporting by Sharaf al-Hourani / Cairo
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