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Egypt Holds Its Breath

CAIRO – “You are the authority, above any other authority. You are the protectors, whoever seeks protection away from you is a fool...and the army and the police are hearing me,” said Egypt’s president-elect, Mohamed Morsi, to hundreds of thousands in Tahrir Square. A man imprisoned following the “Friday of Rage” (January 28, 2011) took the presidential oath in Tahrir on a “Friday of Power Transfer” (June 29, 2012). But he almost did not.

Ten days earlier, on June 19, I was with a group of former Egyptian MPs in Tahrir Square. One received a phone call informing him that a senior Muslim Brotherhood leader was coming to announce that the group was being blackmailed: either accept the constitutional addendum decreed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which practically eviscerated the presidency, or the presidential election’s outcome would not be decided in the Brothers’ favor. An hour later, the senior figure had not shown up. “The talks were about to collapse, but they resumed,” said the former MP. “Hold your breath.”

The victory of the Brotherhood’s Morsi in Egypt’s first free presidential election is a historic step forward on Egypt’s rocky democratization path. His challenger, former President Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, had no chance of winning a clean vote, despite the support of a huge state-controlled propaganda machine and various tycoons. “How many people can they trick, convince, or buy? We don’t have that short a memory,” a taxi driver told me when I asked whether he would vote for Shafiq.

Indeed, the Egyptian revolution has defeated Mubarak’s regime and its remnants three times since January 2011: first with Mubarak’s ouster, then in the parliamentary elections held earlier this year, and now with Morsi’s victory. And yet a military-dominated regime remains a real possibility. The series of decisions by the ruling SCAF just before the presidential vote clearly indicated that the military has no interest in surrendering power.