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Egypt at the Crossroads

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image A Morsi supporter in Cairo

Cairo, Egypt | by Vivian Salama | In early January this year, a headline on Egypt’s political turmoil in state-run Al-Ahram read: “Saving Egypt from Itself.” So is the sentiment following the country’s presidential runoff, with news of the apparent victory by Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi and a preemptive decree by the country’s ruling military junta, further clamping down on power even after the new president assumes office.

As Morsi supporters and die heart revolutionaries flood Tahrir Square in celebration – whether because he was their candidate of choice or he simply signifies a departure from the past 60 years of autocracy – many insist that the real Egyptian revolution must begin now.

In the wee hours Sunday night as votes began to trickle in from polling stations across the country, the controversial ruling passed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) stated that the military -- not the president -- will determine who writes Egypt’s permanent constitution and will oversee the national budget. Weeks of campaigning came to an end over the weekend as Ahmed Shafiq, a retired air force commander and the last prime minister under former President Hosni Mubarak, faced off with US-educated Islamist Mohammed Morsi for what was presumed to be Egypt’s top seat. However, after ruling Egypt for the past 16 months, the military, apparently reluctant to abdicate power, has passed a series of legislations, including one that allows it to arrest civilians, resurrecting the country’s emergency law in a different skin and rolling out new restrictions in what many are calling a soft coup. The country’s high court also ruled last week to dissolve the Islamist-dominated parliament, claiming a third of the seats were won via unconstitutional means.

The move further throws the country’s turbulent transition process into utter disarray, with no parliament, no new constitution, and no framework for the extent and limitations of presidential power. Voter turnout was low as many boycotted or spoiled their ballots, jaded by the process and unable to face the dilemma of choosing between a stalwart and an Islamist. Others voted, approaching it as a best-of-the-worst scenario. For many, a Shafiq win signified a return to square one – a disservice to those who were killed or injured in protests last year and to those tirelessly fighting for change. On the other hand, many fear the worst-case scenarios associated with Islamic regimes in countries like Afghanistan and Iran. Even as Morsi supporters spilled into Tahrir Square to celebrate the campaign’s victory claim, the country holds its breath awaiting official word from the military council, which in light of recent events, is often packed with surprises.  

The race, deemed too-close-to-call by many analysts leading up to election day, revealed that bureaucratic hurdles were no match for the unyielding influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. Long at odds with the state, and only recently accepted as a legitimate organization, the Brotherhood has seemingly adapted to circumstances working against it, winning substantial support in cities across Egypt.

The Muslim Brotherhood, founded by Hassan al Banna in 1928, spread in Egypt through grassroots activism, helping the poor and filling the void left by the state with regard to social services. During the 1952 Egyptian revolution, which marked the end of colonial rule, a new era emerged in national politics, with President Gamal Abdel Nasser enforcing a socialist political system, cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood and blocking a multi-party system. Following the death of Nasser, President Anwar Sadat released many of the Brotherhood members jailed during the Nasser era and reinstated a more diversified political scene. However, the controversial Camp David Accords with Israel caused Sadat to fall out of favor with many in Egypt and in 1981, Sadat was assassinated by a member of a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, causing the enforcement of an Emergency Law that lasted until last month.

Their efforts during the Mubarak era to reassert their influence saw many highs and lows. In 2005, the group won one-fifth the seats in parliamentary, running as independents. At the time, the Brotherhood sought to brand itself more as a political movement to broaden its appeal. However the group began to splinter upon the issuance of a detailed political platform in 2007, which among many things calling for a board of Islamic clerics to oversee the government, and for restricting women from running for president.

Many may have voted for Morsi last weekend solely to secure the departure from the old regime, but not everyone is frowning upon the move by SCAF to limit the presidential powers, particularly those fearful of living in an Islamic state.  The Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, must now devise a concrete plan if it is to ensure its survival, with a particular focus on equal representation of all segments of society, both political and social, in the parliament. It must also support the will of the people in ending the all-encompassing military rule for a more balanced distribution of power for the executive, legislative, justicial and military branch. It would also ease concerns among many of its opponents to detail explicitly role they envision Shari’a law playing in the country’s constitution. The sooner they act, it will promise greater longevity.

Its ability to multi-task between politics and grassroots activism is the question now since the Brotherhood risks falling out of favor with its main constituency if it does not concentrate heavily on economic assistance and support to some of Egypt’s poorest citizens. If Morsi is indeed the chosen president, he will also face tough opposition in the capital, where Shafiq drew overwhelming support in the final stage of voting. It is a wait-and-see scenario until now, but many wish to protest until a civilian, secular government is in place.

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