Egypt's first Islamist president takes oath of office

Egyptian president-elect Mohamed Morsi addressed a throng of adoring supporters in Tahrir Square today. He is from the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest Islamist organization in the world. So what does that mean, exactly?

Egyptian Presidency/REUTERS
Egypt's President-elect Mohamed Morsi (R) shakes hand with Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar Ahmed El-Tayeb before Friday prayers at al-Azhar mosque, in the old quarter of Cairo June 29.

Simply utter the phrase "Muslim Brotherhood" and you're guaranteed to stir dark animal passions among conservative politicians and commentators -- or at least public approximations of dark animal passions. The election of the Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi as Egypt's president has kicked those passions into overdrive.

For many, the Egyptian political movement has joined a long line of American boogeyman with a secret plot to rule the world, from the Masons to the Catholics to the United Nations. In Egypt, there are similar night terrors. Tawfiq Okasha, a conspiratorial TV show host known as the Egyptian Glen Beck, likes to rail against the Masonic/American/Muslim Brotherhood plot to destroy Egypt.

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh earlier this week went on a rant implying that the Brothers have already managed to take over parts of President Barack Obama's White House after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement on Morsi's election. Morsi, read the oath of office in a packed Tahrir today, looking and sounding the part of the leader of the Arab world's largest country. This weekend, he was confirmed the winner of the first free presidential election in Egyptian history.

"We expect president-elect Morsi, as he forms a government, to demonstrate a commitment to inclusivity that is manifest by representatives of the women of Egypt, of the Coptic Christian community, of the secular non-religious community and, of course, young people," Ms. Clinton said. "We hope that full democracy is understood to be more than one election.”

That's a pretty tepid statement, bowing to the reality of an election and making a general appeal for the protection of minority and women's rights. And what was Clinton supposed to do? Scream "we're all going to die" and demand the Egyptian military cancel elections and declare itself a junta-for-life?

But Mr. Limbaugh saw evidence of "the plot" behind her comments, launching a diatribe that claimed that the mother of an aide to Clinton is friendly with Morsi's wife and that therefore the Brothers are being propelled to power by the Obama White House. "That's why Hillary is out celebrating the brotherhood. That's why Hillary is joining Obama in telling the military to give it up for the Brotherhood guy," said Limbaugh.

Unfortunately for Mr. Morsi, the fantasy of an Obama White House cheering section for the Muslim Brotherhood is just that. In fact, Morsi will be lucky to wield much power within Egypt, let along abroad, his title as president and Limbaugh's fertile imagination notwithstanding. This evening in Cairo he addressed a cheering crowd of supporters in Tahrir Square, promising an inclusive government, social justice, and equal protection for all Egyptian citizens. He also spoke of a bright economic future. 

As a sign of that caution, Morsi insisted in his speech today that the peace will be kept with Israel. That doesn't rule out demands for changes going forwards (the restrictions on Egyptian military movements in the Sinai rankle Egyptian nationalists of all stripes, Islamist or not), but is far from red-meat for the anti-Zionist crowd.

But he is not in the position to deliver on any of these politician's platitudes - or on some kind of secret agenda - by himself. The simple fact is that the Egyptian military remains the most powerful government institution. Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who has run Egypt since President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown, and his fellow officers have been in the middle of every major negotiation about Egypt's future since. The announcement of Morsi's victory with 51.7 percent of the vote was delayed as the military sought to extract concessions from the Brotherhood's candidate. Since, the military has been negotiating a role for itself in the cabinet.

Earlier this week, a military spokesmen told an Egyptian television station that Morsi had already agreed to allow Tantawi to stay on as defense minister, and the army has also been negotiating control over the interior ministry, which oversees the national police, and a major role for itself in drafting a new Egyptian constitution. 

While Morsi has electoral legitimacy, neither he nor the Brothers have the ability to take the military establishment head on, even if they wanted to. They probably won't. The group was founded 84 years ago, and while for a brief time it considered the armed overthrow of the Egyptian establishment, the Brothers' last act of violence was over 60 years ago. Waves of government crackdowns down the decades, with leaders spending years in jail for their political beliefs, have bred caution into their bones.

Morsi has other realities to contend with. Almost half of Egyptian voters favored the military's candidate for president, Ahmed Shafiq, a stunning reality when measured against the presumption that a large majority of Egyptian's favor fundamental poltical change. Egypt's various secular political groups, from socialists to liberal capitalist groups, don't intend to roll over in the face of one presidential victory. And Egypt's vast tourism industry, already hard hit by 18 months of political turmoil, would probably have a lot to say about efforts to ban booze or bikinis from Egypt.

Though Morsi formally renounced his Brotherhood membership this week, declaring himself a president for all Egyptians, that's just window dressing. His entire adult life, his brand of nationalism, and his political position stem from the group. He is a Brother through and through. He is committed to advancing the group toward its ultimate goal -- the implementation of the Islamic sharia through Egypt, with the Quran in effect the country's constitution.

Were he free from political constraints, it's safe to say that a greater degree of censorship, mandatory dress codes for women, and sharia courts would be quickly implemented in Egypt. That's what the Brothers want, the meaning of the word "Islamist" when applied to them. But he does not have a free hand, and will not have one anytime soon.

"Neither Morsi’s personality, background or statements nor his group’s intentions will affect how well he can govern," Joshua Stacher, a political scientist who studies Egypt at Kent State, wrote this week. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces "is too overshadowing and obstructionist to allow the new president much free will. Additionally, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood does not have a fixed character or soul. Its members are religious, but the group is not a band of simple ideologues. While a range of behavior can be expected, none of it suggests that the Brotherhood will lead Egypt toward adopting Saudi Arabian-style Shariah law. In this context, the past is prologue. Under the brutally repressive presidency of Mubarak, the Brotherhood repeatedly demonstrated its commitment to nonviolent political pragmatism. Once again, President-elect Morsi and the Brothers are unlikely to use religion to resist the ruling class of generals."

What does an "Islamist" president mean given all this? Expect an Egypt that is cooler to advancing US interests in the region (Mubarak was a US stalwart and his military profited handsomely from US aid as a consequence; the same military that spent decades beating on the Brothers), that was, after all, founded to counteract Western influence in Egypt that its followers believed was undermining their faith. Expect the ministries controlled by the Brothers once the cabinet is announced to perhaps begin "encouraging" female employees to cover their hair; expect a heightened degree of discussion about rewriting or abandoning the peace agreement with Israel signed 30 years ago.

But don't expect short, sharp breaks with foreign powers at a time when Egypt is more dependent on foreign aid than ever, or legislation rammed down the throats of a divided nation yearning for jobs and peace, not upheaval. Egypt is not yet a democracy and it is not yet clear that it will become one any time soon. But there are enough competing power centers there now that Morsi, for good or ill, is boxed in.

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