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In the shadow of doubt

Uncertainty underlines the appointment of the new Egyptian president. Kareem Fahim and Dina Salah Amer write.

india Updated: Jun 19, 2012 21:06 IST

The first celebrations for the new president were joyous but sparsely attended, saddled by fatigue and overwhelmed by traffic and heat. In Tahrir Square, flags waved and boys set off fireworks that disappeared in the midday sun.

The hundreds who gathered on Monday cheered for Mohammed Morsi, a candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood who had held off a challenge from Hosni Mubarak’s former prime minister and is set to become Egypt’s first freely elected president. A milestone had passed and victory had been declared. But even among the revelers, doubts remained.

“I didn’t sleep last night. I am happy we got rid of a remnant,” said Ahmed Adel, speaking of the defeated candidate, Ahmed Shafiq. On Monday, Adel was forced to come to terms with Morsi, who had not been his first choice, or even his second. “No one knows him,” he said.

Wrung through a never-ending transition, Egyptians spent the last few days reeling from new tests. Voters, faced with polarising candidates at the polls, struggled with their choices. The country’s military rulers issued new edicts, dissolving Parliament and stripping the presidency of much of its power.

On Monday, Egyptians puzzled over their newly elected leader, whose accidental candidacy thrust him to the centre of a tense national debate about citizenship, religion and politics. As president, Morsi, a symbol of Egypt’s divides, was suddenly responsible for healing them.

“People who voted for Morsi chose him because of the institution he represents, not because of him,” said Nermine Gohar, a 39-year-old homemaker, one of many people who felt that the Brotherhood and its candidate were inseparable. Morsi had not even been supposed to run. After the 2011 Egyptian revolt, the Muslim Brotherhood declared it would not field a candidate in the race, with officials saying they feared the public would think them too eager to grab power.

After the group changed its position — claiming it had not been able to find an independent candidate it could work with — the 60-year-old Morsi became their standard-bearer, but only after the Brotherhood’s first choice, Khairat al-Shater, the group’s leading strategist, was deemed ineligible.

During the first round of presidential voting in May, Morsi distinguished himself in a crowded field of candidates for his lack of charisma and for espousing polarising, conservative views. He barely appeared in his own campaign advertisements. His early campaign stops with al-Shater led to the frequent charges that Morsi was simply a stalking horse for the disqualified leader. People took to calling him the ‘spare tire’.

Decades ago as a graduate student in the US, Morsi also seemed like an unlikely Islamist leader, said Farghalli A Mohammed, a friend and former professor. Pursuing his doctorate in materials sciences at the University of Southern California in the 1980s, Morsi was a bright student, and keen to socialise, but not especially pious or dogmatic. With a thesis titled ‘High-Temperature Electrical Conductivity Structure of DonorDoped Alpha-Aluminum Oxide,’ he went on to become a professor.

Morsi became one of the group’s most prominent leaders, serving as the head of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc and on its guidance council. He developed a reputation as a conservative enforcer, stamping out political dissent within the group.

In May, after winning the first round of the presidential vote, Morsi found himself facing Shafiq, a former civil aviation minister. As Shafiq tried to amplify the threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi tacked to the centre. The Brotherhood issued statements saying it would have no problem with a female or Christian vice president, although Morsi indicated he would not support women or Coptic Christians as president.

His victory would inaugurate Egypt’s first experiment in Islamist governance. For decades, the government made dire warnings about the Islamists, outlawing the Brotherhood and imprisoning its members, while seizing on the threat to justify one-party rule.

On Monday, Gohar said she was sure the warnings had been overblown. “There is this ignorant fear that the Muslim Brotherhood will turn our country into Iran,” she said. “We need to give Morsi a chance.” Others were more alarmed. “Mubarak was not kidding when he said that it was either him or the beards,” said Youssef Tamam. “What do we even know about this Morsi? Everyone knows he won’t be calling the shots. His own organisation didn’t think he was the man for the job.”

Hany Essam, a driver, spoke darkly of Egypt’s turning into Saudi Arabia. “We went to Tahrir for freedom, and now we will be run by an even more oppressive State,” he said. “What a failure this revolution was.”

A few blocks from Tahrir Square, Ahmed Abdelradi, a petroleum worker, sat in a cafe explaining how he voted for Morsi to “protect the revolution.” Reflecting on the long road Egyptians had been forced to travel and the uncertainty ahead, he said: “We just want the country to calm down. Strange things are happening. Strange things.”

First Published: Jun 19, 2012 21:04 IST