THE ELECTION of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood as president of Egypt is an unequivocal affirmation of the direction in which the country’s people want it to travel. In backing the Brotherhood candidate, the first president from outside the military in the country’s history, the people have insisted that the revolution, which 16 months ago toppled Hosni Mubarak, will not be turned back – no matter what the military, whose candidate former general Ahmed Shafik was defeated, says about it.
The military’s decades-long dead hand on Egypt’s state and politics, reimposed last week in a pre-emptive “soft coup” against Morsi’s victory, must be shaken off by the new government in the months ahead. It will not be easy, but Morsi’s democratic mandate may well be the game changer.
But is the first election of an Islamist president in an Arab country also to be seen as a vote for Islamist rule, for a theocracy? Yes, says Iran. No, say Egypt’s Coptic Christians, liberals and secularists. And the answer appears closer to the latter. The election’s second round pitched Morsi against Shafik, a choice between the old regime and Islamism that left many who fought for the revolution in an acute dilemma. Many backed Morsi as a force for change, and his battle to displace the army’s iron grip will depend on maintaining a broad political base well beyond his natural constituency.
He has started well, at least in his declarations, reiterating the Brotherhood’s pre-election insistence that it wants to preserve a politics in which all Egyptians are comfortable, one akin to Turkey’s model where the increasingly politically neutered army has reached an accommodation with moderate Islam. Resigning from the Brotherhood on Sunday, Morsi pledged that the prime minister to be appointed – liberal Mohamed ElBaradei perhaps? – and an advisory council will come from outside the organisation and be the core of a unity government based on a renewed alliance with liberals and secular activists.
He also extended a hand to the Copts, under recent violent attacks from Salafist-led mobs, and made a welcome promise to uphold all international agreements, an apparent reference to Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.
Moderate Islamist parties have now won majorities in Tunisia and Morocco, and are likely to do so in Libya. Egypt, the region’s most populous country and historically its natural leader, has, likewise, confirmed the trend, a landmark in the Arab Spring’s remarkable transition to summer.