x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

President Morsi hailed in Tahrir Square

The first truly democratically elected leader of the Arab world's most populous country quits the Muslim Brotherhood in a pledge to serve all of Egypt.

Mohammed Morsi’s supporters erupt with joy as they celebrate his election victory at Tahrir Square in Cairo.
Mohammed Morsi’s supporters erupt with joy as they celebrate his election victory at Tahrir Square in Cairo.

CAIRO // Mohammed Morsi was declared president of Egypt yesterday in a stunning culmination of the nation's tumultuous march towards democracy.

The candidate of the once-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood was elected 17 months after Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign amid a popular uprising. He is the first truly democratically elected leader of the Arab world's most populous country.

Mr Morsi, 60, won 51.7 per cent of the votes. Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister, had 48.3 per cent. More than 843,252 votes were declared void for inconsistencies and breaches of electoral law.

"I pledge to be a president who serves his people and works for them," Mr Morsi said on his web page. "I will not betray God in defending your rights and the rights of this nation."

Tahrir Square, packed with tens of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members and Morsi supporters, erupted in celebration after the chairman of the Supreme Presidential Election Commission read out the results on live television.

Morsi supporters wept and knelt on the ground in prayer. They danced, set off fireworks and released doves in the air with Mr Morsi's picture attached.

"It's a festival," said Mustafa Fahmy, 45, a railway worker.

"Morsi will bring back the rights of the martyrs. I'm not worried about the army keeping control. It's better for the country this way," Mr Fahmy said.

Chants of "tell Morsi to come to the square" and "the revolution is free, we'll continue the journey" rang out.

The Brotherhood was considered an illegal group only a year and a half ago, its members brutally repressed and arrested by three presidents over decades for simply being members. But it has emerged as the most powerful political force in post-Mubarak Egypt.

Mr Morsi officially resigned from the Muslim Brotherhood after being declared the winner yesterday to fulfil a campaign promise that he would be beholden to no one but the Egyptian people, but the group is expected to play an important role in advising him on decisions and policies.

International reaction ranged from effusive to muted. The UAE urged Mr Morsi to strive for regional stability and "respects the choice of the brotherly Egyptian people in their track of democracy," said a foreign ministry statement carried by Wam.

"We consider this a turning point in the history of Egypt and the history of Arabs and Muslims, and it's a turning point for the Palestinian issue," said Fawzi Barhoum of Hamas in Gaza.

A Fatah spokesman congratulated Egypt for conducting a fair election and predicted good relations with the new president.

"I think Egypt will continue supporting a Palestinian state on the 1967 lines with Jerusalem as its capital," said Saeb Erekat, a Fatah central committee member and the Palestinians' chief negotiator with Israel. "And I think it will continue supporting reconciliation" between Hamas and Fatah.

Even Israel commended the election of an Islamist to lead Egypt. "Israel appreciates the democratic process in Egypt and respects its outcome," the prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said.

Israel said it anticipated continued cooperation with Egypt, "which is in the interest of the two peoples and contributes to regional stability".

The United States congratulated Mr Morsi on his "milestone" victory. "We congratulate the Egyptian people for this milestone in their transition to democracy," White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement, calling on the new leader to ensure Egypt remains "a pillar of regional peace, security and stability."

But with such a tight race, Mr Morsi's election is unlikely to end tensions between the institutions forged during the Mubarak era and those of a dawning, new political order. There were concerns Mr Morsi would be a largely impotent president after the military rulers who have controlled Egypt's democratic transition curtailed the executive branch in a constitutional declaration issued just after polls closed on June 17.

Mr Morsi had declared himself the winner a day after elections last week, but uncertainty prevailed for six days because Mr Shafiq refused to concede the race and the election commission said it was still reviewing voting irregularities.

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, were celebrating late into last night but analysts said a bigger battle looms in the weeks and months ahead, in which the revolutionary forces could still be sidelined by members of the old guard.

Before the run-off elections, the democratic transition was upended by a decision from the Supreme Constitutional Court that some of the parliamentary elections were unconstitutional.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), the group of top military generals who have controlled Egypt since Mubarak abdicated last year, then dissolved parliament in accordance with the ruling, stripped the executive branch of many of its traditional powers and gave itself full control over a committee that will rewrite the constitution. Critics said the sweeping moves amounted to a "soft coup".

"We are entering another transitional period, rather than the end of one," said Khaled Fahmy, chairman of the history department at the American University in Cairo. "The powers of the president are seriously curtailed. I can easily imagine clashes, or at best a paralysis, because any policies the president or the cabinet draw up must go to Scaf for final approval because they have legislative power."

The Muslim Brotherhood's leadership has responded with a confrontational stance towards Scaf, including mass rallies in Tahrir Square and statements that it would not accept Scaf's new constitutional declaration under any circumstances. Scaf, meanwhile, has said it would not backtrack on its decisions. How that battle is resolved will have huge implications for new-found democracy.

There were questions about whether Mr Morsi would serve a full four years - the traditional presidential term - or would step down after a new constitution is written and voted upon, and a new parliament elected by the beginning of next year.

Mona Makram-Ebeid, a member of the civilian advisory council to Scaf, told The National last week that she believed Mr Morsi would be only an interim president until new elections for parliament are held and a constitution confirmed.

But there was little doubt yesterday that the Muslim Brotherhood had experienced a transformative moment in its 84-year history.

Founded by a schoolteacher as a community organisation that promoted the tenets of Islam and provided cheap health care and education, it has grown into a hugely influential organisation with offshoots around the world and the financial might to make a difference.

Mr Morsi campaigned on the Muslim Brotherhood's "renaissance" project, which envisions a more just distribution of wealth through encouraging small and medium-sized business, and increasing investments in health care and education.

His platform also contains greater emphasis on Islamic principles, including an increasing use of Islamic financing and the creation of a centralised zakat fund for alleviating poverty and improving education. The Muslim Brotherhood has denied it has any plans to impose religion on citizens, though many of the supporters of Mr Shafiq feared that the country would become more repressive under Mr Morsi's rule.

For the cheering Egyptians in Tahrir Square, however, the tense days ahead were easily ignored for a few moments amid the celebratory mood and firecrackers popping.

"It's indescribable," said Mohammed Mohammed Hadary, 48, a maths teacher from Damietta. "The people determined their own destiny and nothing is above the people … but it's going to be a long journey and I'm worried there will be violence."

bhope@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by foreign correspondents Hugh Naylor, Omar Karmi and Megan Detrie