By: Oliver McTernan
The results of the first round of the presidential election has left many Egyptians with a sense of uncertainty over the future direction of their country. The choice for president is now between two men, who represent, in the eyes of many Egyptians, polarizing positions.
Many fear that the election of the former air force commander and short-term Hosni Mubarak prime minister Ahmed Shafiq who promises to crackdown on lawlessness and to curtial the growing influence of Islamists would represent a counter-revolutionary move. It would signal a return to the old order where the country would continue to be dominated by a secularist military elite.
On the other hand, Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood second choice candidate with a PhD in Engineering from the University of Southern California promises to reform the political system, promote ecomonic growth and empower women. Morsi represents for many liberal secularists the risk of imposing a more fundamentalist religious lifestyle on the nation as a whole.
These fears are partly rooted in the regime’s decades of the demonization of the Muslim Brotherhood and partly due to their willingness to identify with a more conservative Salafist platform in the run up to the recent election.
The political price of wanting to appear more sympathetic to the more fundamentalist trends within Islam led some to question the Brotherhood’s efforts over the past year to project a more moderate, unifying image. It was precisely to avoid this risk that the Brotherhood had originally decided to focus its efforts in achieving success in the parliamentary elections and not to field a candidate for the presidency.
In the Brotherhood’s judgement, it was the absence of a candidate who was capable of defending the aims of the revolution that led them rather late in the presidential campaign to reverse this position – a decision that again led many liberals to question whether their ultimate ambition was to dominate Egyptian political life and to impose their version of Islam on the social life of the country. The fact that Mohamed Morsi topped the poll is testament to the depth of the Brotherhood’s grass-roots network and ability to reach beyond its own ranks to gain popular endorsement for their policies.
Whatever the concerns regarding the future governance of the country, the Egyptian presidential election marks the beginning of a new political era. Whoever eventually takes political control, the fact stands that there has been a fundamental shift in the mindset of the population as a whole. Mubarak was ousted because people were no longer prepared to tolerate a regime that showed total disregard for their individual dignity and a natural desire to determine the way in which they were governed. The newly elected political leadership will have to realize that this is the era of accountability. No party or individual can presume to rule Egypt without the consent of the people. From my own in-depth conversations with members of the Muslim Brotherhood over the past years, I know that they are acutely aware that, if they fail to deliver on their promises, they will be ousted by the same people who elected them to power. I don’t know if Ahmed Shafiq and his supports share the same awareness.
The challenges ahead are enormous for the candidate who takes the top political office. The fact that there is still no agreed constitution in place adds to the complexities.
If the expectations of a long-suffering population are to be met, social stability and economic growth have to be given top priority. In order to achieve this, the newly elected president will need to work with parliament to put an end to the present polarization and fragmentation of Egyptian society. Egyptian Copts, Salafists, Secularists, Brotherhood members and non-aligned Muslims must feel they belong, and have a rightful role, within their society. The new political powers need to acknowledge the necessity for pluralism and give priority to the dismantling of those state-sanctioned groups that were responsible for social and political oppression and to the establishment of institutions that guarantee the equality of all citizens before the law.
Egypt, with a population of over 80 million people and its crucial strategic position in the region, is too large and too important to fail. It is in the interests of not just their immediate neighbors but also the wider international community to provide Egypt the support it needs to achieve a successful transition, be it led by a secular or Islamist party.
Oliver McTernan is the director and co-founder of Forward Thinking, a UK-based organization that works to prevent and resolve conflict at a national and global level and to promote understanding between cultures.
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