Editorial: Plenty of signs of hope for a free Egypt

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Egyptians celebrate the victory of Mohammed Morsi in the presidential elections. Photo / AP
Egyptians celebrate the victory of Mohammed Morsi in the presidential elections. Photo / AP

It may be tempting to believe that Egypt's democratic revolution has fizzled and died just 16 months after a popular uprising forced Hosni Mubarak from power. The election of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi as president and the reluctance of the military to relinquish power are hardly the outcomes desired by the liberal and secular youth groups who led the protests in Tahrir Square. Nor are they inviting prospects for Western governments. It would be wrong, however, to conclude that the revolution has come to nought. Enough seeds have been sown to suggest a complete about-turn is not feasible.

One of these is the mere staging of what appears to have been a free and fair election for a civilian president. Another is the Brotherhood's acknowledgment that no longer can it contemplate seizing power on its own. Or wielding it with disdain for non-supporters. As much was implicit in the United States-educated Mr Morsi's proclamation that he was a leader "for all Egyptians" and his words of thanks to the "martyrs" of the uprising.

This was aimed at those fearful of a repressive Islamist state or some sort of power-sharing arrangement between the Brotherhood and the military, which has controlled power in the country for the past 60 years. The disaffection of this group was reflected in the fact that only 52 per cent of Egyptians voted in the presidential run-off between Mr Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq, a Prime Minister during Mubarak's final days in power and the military's favourite.

Equally, the Muslim Brotherhood appears to have accepted that democratic elections are now a fact of life. The genie cannot be put back in the bottle. This will moderate its approach, and a soft Sharia state is far more likely than a hardline Islamist regime. Progress in that direction will, however, be possible only if Mr Morsi can persuade the military to make concessions. Last week, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which is supposed to be overseeing the transition to a democratic state, dissolved the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Parliament, stripped the presidency of most of its powers, and made itself the arbiter of a new constitution.

Yet there is also a sense that even the military recognises much has changed. Mr Shafiq's defeat, albeit by a slender margin, confirmed there will be no resurrection of the old order. Nor will Egyptian politics be solely about the old divide between the army and Islamist forces from now on. If the military is clearly disinclined to lose much of its grip on power, it has shown a new willingness to negotiate with the Brotherhood. Mr Morsi, in addition to tackling Egypt's many domestic problems, not least a wretched economy, must be prepared to battle for a constitution that places civilian institutions at the top of the political tree.

Islamic governments were always a likely consequence of the Arab Spring, no matter how uninviting that prospect for the West. Now the US, in particular, must confront what has become a far more uncertain situation in the Middle East. John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has suggested the appropriate course. "It would be a mistake for us to pull back from our engagement with a free and democratic Egypt," he said. "This is a time to test intentions, not to prejudge them." One of those intentions, encouragingly voiced by Mr Morsi, was the respecting of all Egypt's international agreements. The blood spilt for democratic ideals in Tahrir Square should not have been in vain. There is plenty to suggest some of those ideals are becoming entrenched. Mr Morsi's most important job is to ensure they will not be surrendered.

- NZ Herald

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