Egyptians pray as they celebrate the election of Mohamed Morsi as president… (Daniel Berehulak, Getty…)
CAIRO — The historic election of Egypt's first Islamist president collided immediately with the political reality that the ruling military council has amassed legislative and executive powers in a strategy to block the Muslim Brotherhood from controlling the Arab world's most populous nation.
Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi defeated Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister to serve deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, the national elections commission announced Sunday. The race polarized the country and foreshadowed the political maneuverings certain to shape Egypt's incendiary transition to democracy after decades of autocratic rule.
Morsi's ascendancy was tempered by the army's recent move to reduce the president to a figurehead by limiting his authority over the national budget, military leadership and power to declare war. A court ruling this month that dissolved the Islamist-led parliament allowed the military to seize lawmaking privileges even as it angles to further cement its grip by guiding the drafting of a new constitution.
But when the results of the June 16-17 runoff were announced, cheers and fireworks erupted among thousands of Morsi supporters camped in Cairo's Tahrir Square. It was a rare moment of celebration, but it didn't linger, as activists vowed they would continue their sit-in until the army relinquishes power.
The landmark victory — Morsi won 51.7% of the vote — was the culmination of an 84-year effort by the Brotherhood, which maintains a network of religious and social programs to build a potent political front. That ambition is at the heart of the conflict between political Islam and a secular old guard that is certain to influence governments emerging from rebellions that have shaken the Middle East and North Africa since early 2011.
Morsi's victory symbolizes a change nearly as strong as the upheaval that swept Egypt in the 1950s, when a military coup ended colonial rule and heralded a nationalism championed by President Gamal Abdel Nasser. But Morsi, known as the "spare tire" because he was the Brotherhood's second choice for a presidential candidate, lacks the charisma of Nasser and has relied on the organizational skills of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party to advance his aims.
"I am the president of all Egyptians," Morsi said in his first national address as he sought to swiftly rally a scarred, fractious country. He praised the army, reached out to Mubarak's onetime notorious security services and spoke of kinship with train conductors and taxi drivers. "All Egyptians are my family.... The moment has come for the nation to receive its dignity."
The California-educated conservative Islamist will, at least in the short term, seek to calm critics in the U.S., Europe and Arab states in the Persian Gulf. Morsi has called Israelis "vampires" but has pledged that the Brotherhood is committed to Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel that has become a cornerstone of efforts to ease tensions in the Middle East. What is uncertain is whether he is inclined to emulate the progressive, entrepreneurial Islam of Turkey or tilt toward a less Western leaning theocracy-based government.
Egyptian security forces braced for possible violence after Morsi, a political prisoner under Mubarak, was declared the winner. Fears arose that Shafik loyalists, including those with links to internal intelligence services, would attack Brotherhood members celebrating across the country.
Shouts of "Morsi! Morsi!" echoed out of the square and along the Nile where Egyptian flags flew from car windows and men wept in joy and disbelief.
"Defeating Ahmed Shafik is a defeat of Mubarak's regime," tweeted Khaled Ali, a labor lawyer and former presidential candidate. "The revolution continues."
Shafik's announced 48.3% of the vote, however, showed that voters remained as divided as the two candidates. Coptic Christians and others worry that the Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafis want to gradually impose a strict interpretation of sharia, or Islamic law, on the nation. Thousands of Copts left Egypt after the parliamentary elections, and those remaining, who make up about 10% of the population, stand behind the army.
President Obama called Morsi on Sunday to congratulate him and underscore America's continued support of Egypt's transition to democracy.
In a statement, the White House said that Morsi should "take steps at this historic time to advance national unity by reaching out to all parties and constituencies in consultations about the formation of a new government."
"We believe in the importance of the new Egyptian government upholding universal values, and respecting the rights of all Egyptian citizens — including women and religious minorities such as Coptic Christians," the statement says.