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Egypt President-elect Mohamed Morsi moves into Mubarak palace

Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, moves to form a Cabinet and calm the nation. He also seeks to strengthen his hand against the military.

June 26, 2012|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
  • Egyptian President-elect Mohamed Morsi, second from left, visits his new office at the presidential palace in Cairo.
Egyptian President-elect Mohamed Morsi, second from left, visits his… (Egyptian presidency )

CAIRO — Egyptian President-elect Mohamed Morsi on Monday moved into the palace of the man who once jailed him.

His swift settling in to deposed leader Hosni Mubarak's office was a potent symbol as Morsi begins forming a Cabinet and works to calm a politically divided and economically frayed nation. Declared the country's first freely elected president on Sunday, Morsi also met with advisors to discuss strategies for strengthening his hand against Egypt's military leaders, who remain suspicious of his Islamist leanings.

Once a political prisoner, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate now leads the Arab world's most populous nation. His election victory and subsequent police escort to the Orouba palace in the capital's Heliopolis neighborhood were stunning moments in an Egypt where the once-inconceivable has turned real in unpredictable and potentially dangerous ways.

The president-elect faces pivotal tests in the days ahead. To unite the country, he must choose a Cabinet that mirrors Egypt's political diversity; move swiftly on an economic plan to overcome years of poverty and corruption; and, through negotiation and pressure, nudge the army to restore presidential powers it curtailed this month.

A key aim — one that will define presidential authority for years to come — is to influence the drafting of a new constitution.

The secular military, seeking to preserve its authority, is overseeing work on the document. Morsi says he wants a constitution that respects civil rights yet is enshrined in sharia, or Islamic law, a prospect the generals regard as a threat to their power and a tool for upending domestic and international policies that have governed Egypt since the 1970s.

To succeed, Morsi must convince his countrymen that the autocratic government of Mubarak is not simply being replaced with an institution — the Brotherhood — that will base its policies on narrow religious interests. In his victory speech Sunday night, he stressed pluralism but his bigger challenge is to balance the voices of moderate and ultraconservative Islamists against those of leftists, nationalists, women, Christians and other non-Muslims.

"Morsi has no other choice but to reach out to all political forces. Not only to fulfill his pledges by forming a coalition government, but also to strengthen his legitimacy in the face" of the military, said Khalil al-Anani, an Islamist movements expert at Durham University in Britain. "I believe he will appoint a woman in a high position to avoid any criticism about his ideological stance."

For years, Morsi was known as the enforcer of doctrine within the Brotherhood's leadership committee. More a tactician than a visionary, he has signaled in speeches that he understands that his political fortunes rest on his ability to temper his conservative religious instincts, fix the economy and bring stability to the nation after 16 months of unrest.

The question is whether the military will grant him the power to govern or set him up to fail. That may be partly answered by the fate of parliament. The nation's highest court dissolved the Islamist-dominated body this month, depriving Morsi of a legislative ally and denying Islamists control of two branches of government. The military has said elections will be held for a new legislature.

Such actions have led to sit-ins at Tahrir Square by demonstrators who say they will remain until the disbanded parliament is restored. And Brotherhood officials said Morsi, a former lawmaker, will be sworn in to office in front of the dissolved chamber. Such political maneuvering between the army and Morsi, who can draw tens of thousands of protesters into the street, could intensify before the anticipated military transfer of power by July 1.

Morsi, a stocky, American-educated engineer, resigned from the Brotherhood hours after he was declared president-elect Sunday. The move was intended to show that he represents all Egyptians. It was a pragmatic step by a man who for years gave little heed to public perception. It revealed the Brotherhood's new reality as it — through Morsi — moves from the country's leading opposition force into the presidential palace.

A sense of compromise is becoming more evident. Morsi's ideological nemesis, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Brotherhood member and popular progressive Islamist who finished fourth in the first round of presidential voting in May, is mentioned as a possible vice president. The Brotherhood has also muffled talk about limiting women's liberties, such as rescinding a law that allows wives to divorce their husbands.

"The [Brotherhood] is too pragmatic to risk anything now. Even if they wanted to change some of the women's rights laws, they would wait," said Ashraf El Sherif, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo. "They want to appease the military and the international community. It is clear that the new president is on probation in the eyes of the army."

One of Morsi's biggest challenges is convincing young secular activists and revolutionaries that he represents the goals of the rebellion that ousted Mubarak. For many Egyptians, he is less a revolutionary than a religious establishment loyalist who may jeopardize civil freedoms.

Morsi and the Brotherhood will reach out to the young "through the way they implement a real civil state, so the youth don't fear the rise of an Islamic state," El Sherif predicted.

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Special correspondent Reem Abdellatif contributed to this report.

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