THE ELECTION of Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, to the presidency in Egypt will be a major test of whether an Islamist party can help build a modern democracy. In his acceptance speech, Morsi promised to work with people from across the political and religious spectrum, including Coptic Christians and secular liberals. But the Brotherhood has made such promises before and broken them, perhaps most notably its pledge that it would not field a presidential candidate in this race.
Still, there is reason to hope that Morsi, a 60-year-old engineer who earned his PhD at the University of Southern California, can stike the right balance between religion and political pluralism. Morsi should allay widespread fears about Islamist rule by forming by a national unity government composed of diverse, credible figures, including former UN diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei. Morsi will need all the help he can get as he tries to wrest control from the Egyptian military, which greatly reduced the powers of the president just before the election. The military’s heavy-handed tactics could be a spur to much-needed unity and moderation, if Islamists are forced to join hands with liberal and secular groups in order to present a united front against military rule.
Much will depend on how Morsi interprets the long history of the Muslim Brotherhood — as a battle against despotism, or against secularism.
Founded in Egypt in 1928, the Brotherhood is the most influential Islamic movement in the world, with loosely affiliated branches in more than 70 countries. In the 1930s, it fought against British rule with slogans that advocated a return to Islamic law. After Egypt gained independence and came under military rule, the Brotherhood was accused of plotting to assassinate a number of Egyptian officials. Its members were routinely arrested and tortured. In the 1970s, the group renounced violence and sought a role in politics. In 2005, 88 Brotherhood members formed the most active opposition bloc in Egypt’s parliament, even though the Brotherhood was not a legal group.
Morsi, who was one of those 88 opposition figures, should not forget how long his group fought for political freedom, and what it means for all Egyptians.