With the electoral process complete and Mohamed Morsi established as Egypt’s first democratically elected president, it seems appropriate to look back on the journey that Egypt’s political scene has gone through in the last year and a half to gain a better perspective of where the country is headed in the near future. Going back to January of 2011, the revolution began and was fueled largely by Egypt’s youth, who had grown resentful toward the government due to high unemployment, lack of economic opportunity, and a general desire for democracy to replace the entrenched dictatorship then-President Hosni Mubarak had carefully crafted and protected for the past thirty years. Notably, the initial platform of the Egyptian revolution was void of any religious affiliations, and it had both Muslim and Christian supporters. Even heading into the election, it seemed it would be a contest between Mubarak’s ‘Old Guard’ and youth of the revolution.
However, as candidates emerged in the political field, the Muslim Brotherhood materialized as an organized political force that was well prepared to support their candidate, Mohamed Morsi, against the two other main contenders, Hamdeen Sabahi, champion of the poor and the secular youth, and Ahmed Shafiq, prime minister under Mubarak and favorite by the Security Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which maintained control of the country after Mubarak was ousted. We know how the election played out, but unfortunately, all that can be garnered from the results is that the Egyptian people rejected Shafiq because of his ties to Mubarak’s regime. To really understand what Morsi’s victory says about the revolution and the direction Egypt is heading in, it may be helpful to play out a scenario in which Morsi and Sabahi are the candidates of the runoff. Neither man has stock with the Old Guard, but the key difference between them being that Sabahi believes government and religion should remain separated, while Morsi does not, having run as an Islamist candidate for the Brotherhood.
Had Hamdeen Sabahi advanced to the runoff, could the secular figurehead have scored an electoral victory? While it is impossible to know, considering this bit of alternate history provides insight into what the Egyptian people truly want in the future for their country. Had Sabahi been elected over Morsi, it would have concretely proven that the movement was indeed secular, a revolution for Christians and Muslims committed to establishing a democratic government that protects the rights of all Egyptians. Had Morsi won over Sabahi, it would have indicated that the democratic revolution might have merely been a façade, and that the movement had turned in favor of the Muslim majority and their religious beliefs. This would undoubtedly be at the expense of the Christian minority, which has seen its rights systematically stripped away since the 1950’s, and was only spared from complete annihilation at the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood when Mubarak came to power and clamped down on radical Islamists. For them, Morsi’s victory does not necessarily represent the end of dictatorship, but the quite possibly the end of any sense of security for their families, businesses, and practices of worship, for the Brotherhood that they know murdered thousands of their own less than forty years ago.
Perhaps Morsi will prove this fear unnecessary by keeping religion out of his policy decisions and acting to protect the rights of all Egyptains. Yet, what little we have seen so far of Morsi has made his intentions for the government unclear. Almost immediately after being elected, Morsi issued a decree re-instating the disbanded Islamist-controlled parliament that had been elected after the revolution. The Constitutional Court ruled against reinstating the legislature, and Morsi was told by the Court and by SCAF to respect the ruling and Egypt’s constitution. Morsi eventually backed down and revoked his decree, but it remains to be seen whether he did so in the spirit of compromise to show that he is amiable to a power-sharing agreement with SCAF or whether he knows how to pick his battles and is simply waiting for a better opportunity to establish an Islamist government that will support the platform of the Brotherhood.
Morsi was not the man many thought would rise to power as a result of the revolution, and yet he in fact could bring the most radical constitutional change to Egypt since the end of its monarchy in 1952. Morsi’s party, the Freedom and Justice Party, which is the Muslim Brotherhood’s political organization, supposedly represents a very different group of people than the Muslim Brotherhood that continually orchestrated attacks on Christians throughout the latter half of the 20th century. But with sectarian violence against Christians increasing since the start of the revolution, this claim so far appears to be empty words publicized for political gain. It is even more difficult to determine whether the organization’s supposed shift from an extremist Islamic group to a more moderate Muslim political organization that can represent the nation’s majority population is real and not simply a façade to gain power and implement the radical ideas they are known globally for. Needless to say, the Christians in Egypt are most certainly holding their breath to see if they can cling to the few rights they do have or whether they will be completely overtaken by this new Islamic-led government once and for all.
Through it all, Sabahi was the one man untarnished by his background, and with his electoral loss, he remains an unblemished icon of the revolution, never having the chance to act for the people of Egypt in political office, but also never having the chance to fail. Perhaps, because of this, he is being romanticized as a greater leader than he really is. On the other hand, perhaps Egypt missed its best chance for real democratic change in this man. Regardless of what may have been under Sabahi, Morsi was elected, and that alone is something that has to be respected if the country wishes to establish a tradition of democracy. But as a freely elected official, Morsi will have to prove that he is working for his country and upholding the ideals of the revolution. In a year’s time, people will no longer be celebrating the election; they will want real economic and political change that stabilizes and grows the nation for the benefit of all its citizens, regardless of religious affiliation. And so it seems that as difficult as this period of transition has been for Egypt, the hardest part of the nation’s journey for democracy is yet to come.