x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Egypt's historic announcement preceded by dread

Most of Cairo was a virtual ghost town, with businesses and banks shuttered or closing early and many residents staying indoors for fear of violence.

CAIRO // It speaks volumes about the state of modern Egypt that yesterday's announcement of the winner of presidential elections was preceded not by joy and national pride, but by a pervasive air of paranoia and dread.

Most of Cairo was a virtual ghost town, with businesses and banks shuttered or closing early and many residents staying indoors for fear of violence. It felt pre-apocalyptic, as if everyone was waiting for a slow-moving disaster to unfold.

One of the most widespread worst-case-scenarios was that the Presidential Electoral Commission would award the tight race to former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, prompting the Muslim Brotherhood and its candidate Mohammed Morsi to declare war.

Seemingly the only crowded place in the city was Tahrir Square, where tens of thousands of mostly Islamist protesters had camped for days as a show of Muslim Brotherhood strength and very public warning to the authorities. But even in noisy, defiant Tahrir, it was hard to escape the feeling that there was no way the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or Scaf, the generals who have ruled the country since Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president last year, would ever let Mr Morsi walk away with the presidency.

"I was worried they were playing with the numbers," said Ahmed Zaki, a 27-year-old accountant and member of the April 6 movement, one of the handful of secularist revolutionary groups that joined the Brotherhood in their several-day reoccupation of Tahrir. "The delays burnt my nerves, but it also increased our passion."

The tension waiting was further compounded by the fact that the announcement started more than a half-hour late and that commission chief Farouk Sultan spent another half-hour droning about electoral minutia and complaining about Brotherhood allegations that his commission was biased.

When Mr Sultan finally announced Mr Morsi as the winner with 51.7 per cent of the vote, Tahrir erupted in a celebration that looked likely to go on all night.

"I feel like my country has been returned to me after 60 years of military rule," said Khaled Mahgoub, a 47-year-old executive at a petroleum company. "I finally have the president I want — one far away from the military. I love and respect the military. They are our sons. But they shouldn't rule us any more."

A few metres away, Rehab Ahmed, a veiled homemaker, posed for pictures with Egyptian flags along with her three sons and her husband, Yasser Ramadan.

"This is God's will," she said. "We want to build a new Egypt and close the door on the past. And we hope that the Shafiq supporters will join us in this effort."

The significance of this moment cannot be understated; Mohammed Morsi is now the first democratically elected leader in Egypt's long history. He's also likely to become one of the most heavily scrutinised leaders in Middle Eastern history. It's a moment to genuinely savour for the Muslim Brotherhood, which spent decades under the repression of Mubarak and his predecessors.

But amid the celebration, there seems to be a widespread acknowledgement in Tahrir that the battle for Egypt's future is nowhere close to ending. As Mr Morsi assumes his post, the Muslim Brotherhood remains in conflict with the Scaf over a host of interconnected issues. The Brotherhood-controlled parliament was dissolved by court order on an electoral technicality just days before the vote. And the Brotherhood, along with most revolutionary forces, continues to reject last week's Scaf decree that greatly weakened the powers of the presidency and established the military as a de facto fourth branch of government with control over drafting the next constitution.

All those items should immediately top the agenda once today's Tahrir celebrations wear off. That's why many of the Tahrir protesters vowed to continue their open-ended sit-in until their concerns are addressed.

Mr Zaki, the April 6 member, said his joy on yesterday matched that of February 11, 2011, when Mubarak finally resigned after 18-days of revolt. But unlike last February, he said the protesters wouldn't make the mistake of settling for a partial victory.

"We're not leaving this time," he said. "The biggest mistake we made in the revolution was to leave after Mubarak resigned with the military still in control."