The Challenge For President Morsi: Unite Egypt

Egypt’s newly elected president, Mohammed Morsi, was sworn into office Saturday before the Supreme Constitutional Court in Cairo. Morsi is the first freely elected president of Egypt and its first Islamist head of state.

The day before his inauguration, Morsi addressed a huge crowd in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the revolution that ousted his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.

“I’m standing before you, Egyptian people, those who voted for me, those who opposed me,” he said. “I am yours.”

Nathan Brown, a professor at George Washington University, says that Morsi’s image and personal history are very different than previous presidents.

“He really comes from the outside. He comes from a much more modest background,” Brown said. “He really seems to be this sort of stodgy, fairly conservative, Egyptian from the provinces, that most people would recognize very easily as a man down the street.”

Morsi has spent most of his career as an engineering professor at Egyptian universities and at California State University, Northridge. Brown says that although Morsi has long been a central figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, he kept largely out of the spotlight until recently.

He was the Muslim Brotherhood’s backup candidate for the presidency, emerging to contest and then win the election only after the group’s first choice was disqualified.

Just moments after polls closed in Egypt’s presidential election, however, the ruling military council, or SCAF, dramatically reduced the president’s authority in a constitutional addendum.

Morsi’s first challenge as president will be to try to get those powers back, says Waleed al-Haddad, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party.

“I think Dr. Mohammed Morsi will deal with this issue in a political way, not hard confrontation with SCAF,” he said.

The struggle between the military and the Brotherhood will play out as Morsi works to convince Egyptians that he is able to unite the country after his narrow victory at the polls.

He’s made several gestures already, such as promising to appoint a woman and a Coptic Christian as vice presidents, and resigning as head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm.

“I think it will be absolutely critical for his legitimacy to be somebody who is not simply pursuing the organizational aims of the Brotherhood,” said Brown, “but to have something like the broader national interest in mind.”

Considering his long history with the Muslim Brotherhood — a group that is popular but polarizing — many are skeptical about whether he will actually distance himself from the organization.

“He has advanced within its ranks until he became one of the leaders of the group,” said Mohamed Abu Hamed, a liberal politician. “This means that he’s not only a member, but is fully indoctrinated with their thoughts, beliefs,and principles.”

Abu Hamed says he’s concerned Morsi will put his party’s Islamist agenda ahead of the national interest. But Morsi’s initial policy plans focus on practical issues most Egyptians can agree on, rather than more controversial religious or cultural issues.

Haddad outlines the new president’s 100-day plan: “No. 1 is security, No. 2 traffic, No. 3 fuel, No. 4 the waste, No. 5 bread.”

Brown says Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood colleagues know they’ll have to hit the ground running.

“They knew they would have to prove themselves very quickly,” he said.

And they also knew that this is a society that is poor, that is in the middle of an economic crisis, and is looking not for grand slogans but for very practical answers.

Amid a turbulent political environment, Egyptians are waiting to see whether Morsi will have the power and the political will to make good on his promises.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.