For first time in modern memory Egyptian citizens voted in a presidential election, and though the longterm outcome remains a central worry for the US, the election itself is highly symbolic. The winner, Mohammed Morsi, is the candidate fielded by the Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative theological group. What they do now, the world waits to see.
Egypt is strategically important to the United States for both security and political reasons. Mubarak, Egypt’s fallen strongman, who seems on the cusp of death, was a longtime American ally which provided a massive buffer zone between the Middle East and northern Africa, essentially placing an artificial secular, and neutral-towards-Israel wedge between the Arab world. But this week’s election has shown that division existed more on a political level, and that Egypt’s population and beliefs are much more similar to their neighbors in the region.
Israel, and its American supporters, fret about the devolving situation in the Sinai peninsula and the continued adherence to the peace treaty that ended Egypt’s conflict with Israel during the second half of the 20th century. America has been giving Egypt military aid for years, one worry is the country turning its firepower towards Israel, either directly or in an effort to aid the Palestinians. The Suez Canal, one of the world’s most important transit points for goods and fuel and lying entirely in Egypt, is currently pledged to remain open to all nations, but could become limited or extorted against the west.
Politically, the Middle East has Syria, Iran, and transitioning nations like Yemen to worry about. But Egypt’s massive size and population requires that stability be recovered quickly. Another point that the election revealed is that the Egyptian population (82 million) is strongly but evenly divided across the political spectrum. This means that the balance of power will remain tentative as parties exchange seats over the coming decade. Real change might be hard to achieve.
The above argument is a big reason why the Muslim Brotherhood’s biggest challenge, gaining legitimacy, is fraught with peril. It is a long road to a good reputation, especially when the world has already labelled you as a semi-terrorist organization with a jihad on the west. While there are certainly informal connections that lead anywhere one chooses to go, the Muslim brothers are now more occupied with helping Egypt through promises they made to voters. The demands of high office, including continuous public scrutiny, might serve to straightlace the outfit away from its questionable connections.
Ultimately, as in every case before it, legitimacy and popularity come from real action that visibly improves the domestic situation. The Muslim brothers say they are working for their people, for Egypt, we must give them time to hold their word. Nothing is sure at the birth of democracy.