Rough start for Egyptian democracy

It took longer than anticipated, but there is finally a victor in Egypt’s first truly competitive presidential elections. Mr. Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, prevailed over former Gen. Ahmed Shafik. The outcome is symbolic on many levels, but most significantly because it is not clear if Mr. Morsi is president in any real sense. Egypt’s old order is waging a battle behind the scenes — and under cover of the judiciary — to strip the new administration of any real power.

It has been a tumultuous 16 months since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. The former strongman went on trial in a nationally televised spectacle that culminated in his conviction on charges of complicity in the killings of antigovernment protestors and a subsequent stroke. Found guilty, he is now reported to be in a coma and his recovery is uncertain. In parliamentary elections held last fall, the Muslim Brotherhood won a majority, but real power continued to be exercised by a military council that took power upon Mubarak’s resignation and which represented continuity with his regime. The council pledged to hand over power on June 30 and the new parliament would draft a new constitution that would transfer power to democratic institutions.

But days before the second round of the presidential ballot — the runoff vote between Mr. Morsi and Mr. Shafik — the constitutional court held that the parliamentary vote was invalid and dissolved the body. The ruling was technically correct: The interim constitution set aside one-third of the seats in the new Parliament for “independents” but election officials allowed politicians affiliated with parties to run as independents. In addition, the court also challenged the decision to allow Mr. Shafiq to run in the first round of the presidential election even though a law had been passed that disqualified him; the constitutionality of that law had been challenged but no final decision had been reached.

While “technical” violations are important — at least in any country that purports to have the rule of law — the failure to resolve either issue until the very last moment smells of bad faith, or even a “legal coup” as some have alleged. The decision has compounded fears that the military is not prepared to give up power and that Egypt could dissolve into a civil war between the military and the Islamists. The election results announced Sunday morning revealed the depth of the nation’s division: Mr. Morsi won 51.7 percent of the runoff vote while Gen. Shafik claimed 48.3 percent.

The new president’s powers are uncertain; the interim constitution vests all authority over legislation and the budget, as well as control over the prime minister, in the military council, although Mr. Morsi has the power to appoint the Cabinet. The military claims that it will oversee the drafting of yet another constitution and that a new parliament will be elected. But the fact remains that Egypt has a new, democratically elected president, and he and the people who elected him expect him to govern.

Unfortunately, distrust of the Muslim Brotherhood runs deep in Egypt. The organization has existed for 84 years as a secret society and is considered by many, in Egypt and elsewhere, to be a front for radical Islamists who seek to impose a fundamentalist state.

The group insists that it is committed to democracy and has sought to build ties with secular and liberal groups. Critics charge that its democratic inclinations are a sham and the pursuit of a “national front” is a cover. They note that the Muslim Brotherhood originally promised not to run a candidate for president, but its powerful showing in the parliamentary ballot last fall tempted its leaders to reveal their real intentions with Mr. Morsi’s candidacy.

In fact, the reality of the Muslim Brotherhood’s resurgence is more mundane. In the aftermath of Mubarak’s ouster, many of the groups that lead the revolt against the regime failed to take up the nuts and bolts organizing that was needed to create the party infrastructure that would prepare for elections. Mr. Shafik, who was named prime minister in a last ditch effort to keep Mubarak in power, represented the continuation of the old order and the belief that only a strongman can keep order in Egypt. And on the extreme right, Salafi ultraconservatives had become the second largest group in the parliament. In this environment, ironically enough, the Muslim Brotherhood does look like the savior of the revolution.

The challenge now is to find a way for the military to return to the barracks without losing face or undermining the nascent democracy in Egypt. Pressure must be kept on the generals to honor the intent of the revolution and the majority of voters who chose Mr. Morsi. Egypt’s politicians can look to Turkey for ways to enshrine democratic principles in a new constitution that would shield the country from creeping Islamic fundamentalism and prevent the military from exercising a veto over politics.

The alternative is Algeria, where the military two decades ago overturned a popularly elected Islamic government and triggered a civil war, years of civil rights abuses and a terrorist insurgency. The people of Egypt deserve better.