June 27, 2012
Illustration: Simon Letch
EGYPT at last has a President. The jubilation which greeted the elevation of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Mursi, was spontaneous and unfeigned - not least because there has been considerable doubt whether Egypt's army, in the form of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, would allow the Muslim Brotherhood candidate to win. SCAF has already been manoeuvring to ensure the win does not transfer too much power to civilian politicians it does not trust. The army that emerged after the fall of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 as the saviour of the nation has been slowly falling in Egyptian voters' estimation as it has become clear just how reluctant it is to release its grip on government. The country may have a President, but how he will rule and what his powers are remain unclear. The constitution remains suspended. There is no parliament. Mursi has a mandate to take charge, but of what?
The upheaval that ended Mubarak's rule scared investors away and caused the economy to contract early in 2011. Since then the interim military government has propped it up using borrowings and drawing on Egypt's foreign exchange reserves, but confidence-boosting measures are clearly needed. One of the first acts of Mursi's government may be to negotiate help from the International Monetary Fund - the conditions of which may come as a jolt for Egyptians hoping for a return to something like prosperity.
Egypt's status as the leading nation of the Arab world gives the fate of its government particular significance in the region. It was not the first country to experience the popular revolt that has come to be called the Arab Spring, but it is perhaps the most important. And where other countries - Libya and Syria especially - have seen the uprising derailed or diverted into varying levels of violence by ethnic divisions which are a legacy of their colonial-era foundation, Egypt has no such obstacles to overcome. Each country's uprising has been like a question asked about the future. Egypt might seem the most likely to provide a definitive answer to the question - and a pattern for the Arab world to follow. It may still provide that answer, but it has not done so yet.
For the region, the immediate question is how an Islamist government in Cairo will affect the balance of power. Mursi is taking things slowly. He has made reassuring noises about respecting all international agreements the country has already entered into. He did not mention it by name but the chief among these is the Camp David agreement affirming peace between Egypt and Israel. He has taken care to deny an Iranian report that he intended to reconsider it.
Israel has declared it respects the outcome of the Egyptian election. It has little choice, of course, even though an Islamist candidate will hardly be to its taste. Nonetheless, it is in its long-term interest, as much as any other country's, for Islamist politicians to enter the mainstream. Western countries similarly should respect the result. An elected politician of whatever colouring is obviously superior to a military junta. It is hardly surprising or unreasonable for a Muslim-majority population to elect leaders who reflect its values.
And those - inside Egypt and outside - who fear religion dominating politics should relax. Politicians may claim the sanction of the almighty, but they are as fallible and frail as anyone else. The Muslim Brotherhood has a five-point plan to get Egypt moving, including improving traffic flows and rubbish collections, and gradually reducing subsidies on bread, petrol and power. If the movement seems like a national saviour now - and there is doubt about that for many voters - time in office dealing with mundane demands will inevitably dull its gloss. Repression would only enhance it.