x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Morsi is the nation's choice - but only until things go wrong

Voices from the streets of Cairo are not all giving full-throated support to the new Islamist president.

Never mind that no one had heard of Mohammed Morsi two months ago. Never mind that, according to the veteran Egyptian journalist Rushdie Abul Hassan: "If the Muslim Brotherhood had nominated a rock it would have been elected." It was impossible to gainsay the exhilaration that swept a baking Tahrir Square when Mr Morsi was announced the winner.

The Brotherhood's supporters, mostly ordinary Egyptian men, desperately needed to feel they'd won something, no matter how Pyrrhic the victory.

The results of the June elections should have been made public days ago; semi-official tallies suggested Mr Morsi was slightly ahead of former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq. The recount, justified as an examination of "hundreds of complaints" of vote tampering, was seen as a ploy by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) to gain time for backroom deals that would limit the president's power.

Earlier in the month, the Supreme Constitutional Court had dissolved the Islamist-dominated parliament - proof, some said, that the Brotherhood was poised to take the presidency and Scaf responded to consolidate its own authority. The cynics said the race was close enough for Scaf to announce a Shafiq win if the Brotherhood didn't accept its conditions.

The televised announcement of the results was scheduled for Sunday at 3pm. An expectant crowd filled Tahrir Square, where many had been waiting for days, partly to protest against Scaf's "soft coup".

There were obvious religious overtones: one group of men I spoke to was convinced that only Muslims could enter heaven and shook their heads pityingly when I said I was Christian.

Three o'clock came and went. Men circulated water bottles, sprinkling their compatriots who were wilting under a searing sun. A fine mist was sprayed by a man with tanks strapped to his back, the same high-pressure equipment used by exterminators. "Don't worry," someone assured me, "he cleaned it first." The few women on hand were all veiled.

Finally the announcement was broadcast. When the Morsi win became official, the Square burst into a deafening, sustained roar. The cacophony of klaxons, chants, fireworks and revelry lasted deep into the night.

Not all Egyptians were celebrating, however. In a country of more than 80 million, this president was elected with just over 13 million votes. In his first speech as president-elect, Mr Morsi told Egyptians: "Don't obey me if I don't fulfil my promises." It was hardly reassuring to segments of society for whom the concept of obedience has long since worn thin. But many believe that Mr Morsi will be answerable to them and, if he doesn't do his job, they'll vote him out.

In the last two months, the Brotherhood's popularity has noticeably diminished. Their political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), had promised not to field a presidential candidate at all; the Islamist-dominated parliament had attempted to monopolise the writing of the constitution. Mr Morsi's first-round vote total of six million suggested that Egyptians were wary of more broken promises.

Once the new constitution is written, many believe another election could take place and Mr Morsi's presidential career could end as abruptly as it began. With the economy in a shambles, fuel and food subsidy cuts are imminent, and the FJP will have to handle the inevitable fallout. Between the demands of the public, Scaf and the Brotherhood, Mr Morsi is in the hot seat.

Although these elections mark a new stage in Egypt's political process, economic hardships are bound to deepen with painful consequences for the entire society.

Throughout Sunday night and into yesterday, chants celebrating Mr Morsi's presidency as a people's victory blended with familiar cries of "Down with the military!" and "Field Marshall Tantawi: Leave!"

But at a time of intensifying turmoil in the neighbourhood, with Sudan joining Libya and Syria in political unrest, the generals are not going anywhere.

With Mr Morsi's inauguration scheduled for June 30 and a cabinet in the making, it remains to be seen whether Egypt's new president will head a government that serves the people, or serves the forces that placed him in power.


Maria Golia is the Cairo-based author of Cairo, City of Sand and Photography and Egypt