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Islamist in the Presidency: Egypt's Powerless New Head of State

An Analysis by Ulrike Putz

Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi has won presidential elections in Egypt, but the country's military stripped the office of its powers before his victory was even announced. Facing a deeply divided populace and a crippled economy, the new head of state faces an uphill battle.

Picture Gallery: Egypt's Islamist Head of State Photos
REUTERS

The Muslim Brotherhood had been waiting for this moment for 84 years, but it was the final hour that would prove the longest. The head of Egypt's election commission, Faruk Sultan, spent fully 60 minutes explaining just how he and his officials determined the results of the first free presidential election in the country. When he finally saw fit to announce the victor, Cairo's Tahrir Square erupted in celebration. Thousands screamed for joy: Following eight decades during which the Islamist group was oppressed and persecuted, Muslim Brother Mohammed Morsi was elected as the country's new leader.

Morsi's victory is first and foremost an important milestone. The Muslim Brotherhood is the oldest Islamist organization in the world. The fact that the group has now won the presidency in the most populous country in the Arab world in free and fair elections will certainly make waves across the region.

Still, the election has revealed once again just how deep the rift in Egypt has become. It has been a year since authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak was toppled and the country still has not decided in which direction it wishes to go. Morsi's vision of a departure from the Mubarak years was countered by his opponent Ahmed Shafiq, a long-time companion of the ousted president. The election campaign was one between the old Egypt and the new Egypt.

It is an uncertainty that was reflected in the week of confusion following the vote just over a week ago. For seven days, there were no official results and it looked briefly as though the ruling military council would not recognize the true victor and would install their man Shafiq in the presidential palace. Protests in the streets and Muslim Brotherhood threats to stage another revolution would appear to have changed the generals' minds. It remains to be seen, however, what kind of a deal the Muslim Brotherhood might have struck with the military.

Deeply Suspicious

Morsi's victory is cause for some optimism, showing as it does that at least a modicum of democracy would appear to have gained a foothold in Egypt. Still, the almost even division of votes in the runoff is cause for some concern. The Islamist candidate received 51 percent of the votes whereas Shafiq, who promised to re-establish law and order using tried-and-true methods from the old regime, received 48 percent. Half of Egyptians believe that Islam will guarantee the country a better future with the other half of the population fearing Islamist rule. The revolution has severely polarized the country in the last 16 months.

Morsi, 60, is well aware that many both in Egypt and abroad are deeply suspicious of him as an Islamist. Many inside the country accuse him of being little more than a puppet of the Brotherhood's leadership. On Sunday, Morsi sought to defuse such concerns by announcing immediately after the results were announced that he was leaving the Muslim Brotherhood. He pledged to be the president of all Egyptians, including Coptic Christians and the secular, and has promised to choose his vice president from among his opponents.

He also sought to reduce concern abroad -- particularly in Israel -- by emphasizing that Egypt would continue to respect all of its international treaties, including the peace agreement with Israel.

Morsi was born in 1951 in the Nile-delta town of Sharqia, a traditional Muslim Brotherhood stronghold. He embarked on a career as an engineer, receiving his Ph.D. at the University of Southern California. Two of his five children were born during his time in the United States and possess American citizenship as a result.

Morsi's political career began when he became a founding member of the Egyptian Commission against Zionism. He is considered to be anything but charismatic and is awkward when appearing in public. He only ran for the office after the original Muslim Brotherhood candidate Khairat el-Shater was disqualified shortly before the election.

A Scapegoat for a Frustrated Electorate

Now, as Egypt's new head of state, Morsi is presented with a not insignificant problem. Just before Egyptians headed for the polls, the country's military pushed through several constitutional amendments essentially stripping the presidency of most of its powers. At the same time, many Egyptians who voted for him have high hopes that Morsi -- and Islam -- will be able to guarantee the country a bright future.

Disappointment is almost certain. The country's economy is in a shambles and experts believe that it will take decades to improve the situation for a large majority of the population. Morsi could easily become a scapegoat for a frustrated electorate.

Blaming the new president, however, would be misguided. It is estimated that up to 40 percent of the country's gross domestic product is generated by companies owned by the military, granting the generals enormous economic leverage. In addition, the recent constitutional amendments grant the military overwhelming political power as well, including de facto control over the country's foreign policy and domestic security. The military also has the final say over budgetary matters, has taken over law-making duties from the parliament and has control over the committee charged with rewriting the country's constitution.

As such, the fact that an Islamist has now taken up residence in the presidential palace in Cairo appears rather unimportant. Nor is it clear how long he will be allowed to stay. Even prior to the official announcement of Morsi's victory, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issued a statement that he may have to hand over his office again soon.

Morsi, in short, is two things in one: A democratically elected head of state, and a president serving at the mercy of the military. He will only be around for as long as the true holders of Egyptian power believe him to be necessary.

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