Muslim Brotherhood Claims Egypt's Presidency

Obama calls to congratulate the Islamist victor.

Mohammed Morsi, chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, was declared the winner of the presidential run-off held last weekend in Egypt. Morsi defeated former Mubarak-era prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, garnering nearly 52% of the vote to Shafiq's 48%. What does Morsi's victory mean? And more importantly, what kind of relationship will the new president forge with Egypt's ruling military council who just recently dissolved the legally elected parliament, eliminated the assembly set up to write the constitution, and issued a "constitutional decree" that emasculated the powers of the presidency?

There is no doubt that Morsi's victory has profound implications for Egypt and for the region. The Muslim Brotherhood, despite Washington's insistence that it has evolved into a moderate political party, has never wavered in its belief that Israel should be destroyed, and that sharia law be implemented throughout Egyptian society. The Obama administration chooses to ignore the Brotherhood's radicalism and violent past, in order to stay engaged with the Arab world's largest and most populous country.

But realpolitik has its limits. To believe that the Muslim Brotherhood has morphed into a moderate, responsible political party, you must deliberately ignore its actions and accept what it has said at face value.

This, the Obama administration seems perfectly willing to do as the president called Morsi and congratulated him on his victory. The White House issued a statement on the president's conversation with the Islamist leader that said, in part, "The United States will continue to support Egypt's transition to democracy and stand by the Egyptian people as they fulfill the promise of their revolution."

Leaving the "promise of the revolution" in the hands of the Brotherhood is foolish. The list of promises made by the Muslim Brotherhood in the aftermath of Hosni Mubarak's overthrow that it has subsequently broken gives the lie to the idea that President Morsi and the Brotherhood are concerned about anything except advancing their agenda and seizing power.

1. The Muslim Brotherhood promised to run candidates for parliament in no more than 33% of electoral districts. The group ended up winning almost half of all parliamentary seats after running candidates in about 70% of the districts.

2. The Muslim Brotherhood promised not to run a candidate for president. In the end, the group ran two candidates after its first choice, Khairat al-Shater, was declared ineligible by the electoral commission. Morsi, its second choice, was elected president.

3. The Brotherhood promised to allow all factions in Egyptian society to be represented in the 100 member assembly that would draft a new constitution. The group rigged the process so that 70% of the seats went to Islamists.

"The big concern is that they are liars," said Mohamed Abu Ghar, the head of the leftist Egyptian Social Democratic Party. "I'm scared that they are going to manipulate all the key positions and key places in the military, police and in the government offices for the Brotherhood."

Each step of the way, the Muslim Brotherhood has promised to be inclusive, modest in its ambition, and respectful of all political parties in Egypt. What has happened instead is a naked grab for power that has frozen out all but token representation from the political opposition, and alienated much of the population. Morsi's narrow victory -- the result of a backlash against the Brotherhood by voters disgusted with its arrogance -- denies him any semblance of a mandate that will certainly hamper his efforts at governing, at least for the foreseeable future.

Morsi, in his first public speech following the announcement of his victory, sounded like a broken record. He said all the right things about "inclusion," made all the right noises about representing all of Egypt, and made sweet sounds about democracy and unity:

Egypt, the nation and the people, is in need for a unity of ranks and word so that this great and patient people could reap the fruits of its sacrifices.


Egypt is for all Egyptians. We are all equal in rights, and we all have duties.


We are all equal in rights, and we all have obligations to carry on for this country. As for myself, I have no rights, but I have obligations.

He also promised to "protect the rights of women and children," as well as Christians and Muslims alike. And he promised to uphold all international agreements -- a reference to the Israeli peace accord, even though he did not mention Israel by name.

Given the track record of the Muslim Brotherhood, why should we believe him?

For one thing, Morsi will be severely constrained by the military council that has now appropriated most of the executive and legislative powers in the government. This is why most analysts believe that Morsi will be extremely cautious at first in challenging the military's decisions regarding the dissolution of parliament and the constitutional assembly -- a body that the generals will now appoint. In effect, Morsi has been caught in a bear trap: he will receive the blame for the lack of improvement in the economy, while the military avoids public responsibility. Joshua Stacher, a political scientist and Egypt expert at Kent State University, points out that the bureaucracy is made up largely of Mubarak holdovers who will seek to thwart Morsi in most of his reforms. “What this does is it has made SCAF [the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] king-like," says Stacher. "It allows them to have this expanse of executive and legislative power, while the blame will be shifted onto the people who emerge from the ballot box.“

Morsi, who is seen as a rather colorless and ineffective politician compared to the man he replaced on the ballot, al-Shater, engenders little confidence even among his friends that he can govern effectively given the circumstances. Mohammed Habib, a former deputy chairman of the Brotherhood, was asked by the New York Times whether Morsi has what it takes to meet the challenges of his office. Mr. Habib said, “No, he doesn’t.”

As a practical matter, Morsi's task seems near impossible. The levers of power are firmly in the hands of the generals, there is no parliament to pass his program, an entrenched bureaucracy of potential enemies awaits him, and hostile courts which may yet declare his election null and void when they take up the issue of the legality of the Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, in September. There is a ban on religious-based political parties and given what the Supreme Court just did to parliament, it is not out of the question that Morsi may find his election declared illegal.

But that's in the future. For the present, Morsi finds himself on the horns of a dilemma: if he appears too compliant with the military, he may lose the support of the Egyptian street, which seems inclined for the present to grant him a honeymoon period. But if he challenges the military too directly, he invites a backlash by the generals.

His first decisions may be instructive. Morsi says he will not be sworn in unless it is before the members of parliament who were recently dismissed. And he has asked his supporters to remain in Tahrir Square until the military reverses its power grab. Both statements can be seen as challenges to the military's authority. But there is also behind the scenes negotiations going on with the generals that may see some sort of compromise emerge. "Nobody should doubt there is going to be deal-making," said Shadi Hamid, director of the Brookings Doha Center. "The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces still has the tanks and guns and the Brotherhood still understands that. There has to be some temporary power-sharing agreement," he said.

Deal or no deal, no one should expect the Muslim Brotherhood to change its goals. Nor should anyone expect the Brotherhood to alter its Islamist outlook on the world. The group will be anti-Western, anti-Israel, anti-Christian, and intolerant of women's rights, as well as supportive of terrorist groups like Hamas. This, the Muslim Brotherhood cannot change, no matter how many speeches President Morsi delivers, how many soothing words he speaks that sound so inviting to some western ears.

It is what the group was. It is what the group is. And most decidedly, it is what it will be as it struggles with the military for control of Egypt.

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