Mohamed Morsi’s Bittersweet Egypt Victory

Tahrir Square erupted in cheers for Egypt’s first-ever president-elect—but the country is still fractured.

Khaled Desouki, AFP / Getty Images DESOUKI

In a victory 84 years in the making, Mohamed Morsi, a U.S.-educated engineer and head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm in Egypt, was officially named the country’s first-ever president-elect, 16 months after Egyptians ousted their president of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak, in a popular revolt. The victory positions Islamists to lead renewed calls for revolution against the military rulers, accused by many of hatching a soft coup to monopolize power.

Morsi clenched the presidency with 51.73 percent of the vote, while his opponent Ahmed Shafiq, the last prime minister to serve under Mubarak, earned 48.24 percent, according to Farouq Sultan, head of the election commission and chairman of the Supreme Constitutional Court of Egypt. Euphoria instantly erupted in Tahrir Square as tens of thousands of Morsi supporters and pro-revolutionaries shot off fireworks, waved flags, and cheered in a frenzied celebration. Drivers honked car horns, and people ran through the streets shouting “God is great!”

“This is the happiest day of my life,” said Salah El-Din, 28, a Morsi supporter celebrating in Tahrir Square. “Dr. Morsi will defeat the military, and the power will belong to the people again.”

Celebrations extended to the neighboring Gaza Strip as well, where supporters of Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, rejoiced at news of an Islamist Egyptian president.

Morsi, who earned a doctorate in engineering from the University of Southern California, is considered a soft power in the Muslim Brotherhood and has long been overshadowed by more conservative members of the group. He has run on a free-market platform, but with a heavy emphasis on improving social services. While his official platform does not mention the military, he has repeatedly said that no institution will be above the Constitution once he is sworn in July 1. He has vowed to support the Palestinian people in their struggle for statehood, and while he has made provocative comments about Israel, once calling it a “vampire” state, he has repeatedly promised that the Camp David accords will remain untouched.

Today’s achievement was once a pipe dream for the previously outlawed Brotherhood, following decades of government crackdowns, arrests, and alienation. While Shafiq earned the support of nearly half the voters, especially from the country’s minority Christians and those fearful of Egypt’s future under Islamist leadership, he was viewed by many as a return of the old guard and a setback to the revolution. But even Morsi’s victory is bittersweet to many who voted for him, pleased to usher in a regime change but unhappy with the prospect that the Muslim Brotherhood is rising to power.

“The mistake that everybody in Egypt has been committing is to isolate and differentiate between political powers,” said Amr Darrag, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm. “This always allowed the authorities to maintain control of the country. The target wasn’t just the Muslim Brotherhood. The target was democracy.”

As a candidate, Morsi indirectly came under fire from the military and the electoral commission for prematurely claiming victory even as votes were still being tallied. But the last 48 hours seem to highlight splintering among countrymen once united by a common goal to oust the former regime, with thousands of people, opposed to Islamist rule, holding separate protests in support of Shafiq.

“The majority did not vote,” notes Adel Iskandar, an Arab-studies scholar at Georgetown University. “The majority opposed both candidates, and in both circumstances, the military and deep state continue to hold the reins. Meet Egypt’s next nonpresident, Mohammed Morsi.”

The celebrations in Tahrir today ultimately stem from the actions of a humiliated and tyrannized Tunisian vegetable grower, Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself ablaze in December 2010, igniting uprisings across the entire region. Egyptians took to the streets weeks later demanding jobs, dignity, and most significantly an end to the regime of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president for 30 years. At least 800 people were killed in clashes with state security during 18 days of protests.

But euphoria was short-lived amid a turbulent transition process that saw the military fall from grace to become public enemy No. 1. It has recently ruled over the country with an iron fist, increasingly solidifying its noose on civil rights and governance. Only days before the presidential runoff, the country’s high court ruled to dissolve the Islamist-dominated Parliament. The military council also passed a decree allowing military police and intelligence to detain civilians and refer them to military tribunals. The rulings “are the latest indication yet that there won’t be a meaningful handover to civilian rule,” Human Rights Watch’s deputy Middle East director, Joe Stork, said in a statement last week.

But many hold hope for a unifying resolution. “If Morsi takes on the military, then we will support him—even if we oppose him,” said Alaa Abdel Fattah, a prominent secular activist and blogger who was imprisoned both under the Mubarak regime and by the military council on charges of inciting violence against the military. “The Muslim Brotherhood, when they were elected into Parliament, started giving excuses instead of taking a revolutionary stance, and it wasted time and accomplished nothing. We hope there won’t be a repeat of this.”

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For weeks, Shafiq, 70, and Morsi, 60, have appeared in campaign ads and traveled across Egypt, meeting citizens and addressing their concerns, with hope of establishing new loyalties amid this turbulent period. In a Thursday-night press conference, Shafiq said to a crowd of loud, cheering supporters that he is the lawful winner of the vote, but will wait until the official results are announced before claiming victory. “I gained the votes of millions,” he said June 21. “That says a lot about what Egyptians want for their society and their country.”

Egypt’s economy has fallen in utter disarray, with international investors nervously watching as the transition unfolds and politics overshadow efforts to rebuild. Growth is forecast to drop to 1.5 percent this year, from 1.8 percent last year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Tourism—Egypt’s cash cow—plummeted 30 percent in the first quarter from the same period last year. Without stimulation, there will be no jobs, no improved education, no institution building—some of the very issues that sparked this revolution in the first place.

Previous candidates fielded by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party were disqualified as newly implemented election hurdles blocked several slated favorites—among them Khairat El-Shater, blocked by a rule that candidates had to have been released from prison six years before running, and Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, an anti-U.S. preacher whose mother was ironically found to have U.S. citizenship, a violation of electoral guidelines. Moderate Islamist candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh was among the presumed favorites in the earliest days of the election, but failed to make it past the first round of voting.

“Morsi is not a real president yet,” said Abdel Fattah. “If he is smart, and if Muslim Brotherhood is smart, they will stay in Tahrir Square and continue fighting until conditions are more favorable. Our struggle isn’t over with this election.”