Mohamed Morsi’s ascent was the culmination of a far longer journey, the 84-year quest for power by the once-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. And whatever the constraints on his authority or the challenges that lie ahead, the significance of the moment for a Middle East still struggling to find its way amid the tumult unleashed by the Arab Spring was lost on few.
“This is a watershed, not only in Egyptian politics but for the politics of the entire region,” said Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. “Egypt is the trendsetter, the base of the Arab world, and developments in Egypt are likely to affect the whole Arab world.”
For some, it was a cause for celebration, for others, deep unease.
The euphoria that accompanied the toppling of autocratic leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya last year has long since been tempered by the harsh realities of repression in Bahrain and bloodshed in Syria, where the 15-month-old rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule appears to be descending into a full-blown civil war.
From the countries of the Persian Gulf to Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon, many secularists and religious minorities are also watching with dismay the wave of religiosity washing across North Africa, with Islamists poised to do well in Libya’s first democratic elections this month and already running the government in Tunisia.
Though Morsi has resigned from the Brotherhood in a gesture of national unity, the installation in Egypt of a president who ran on a Brotherhood ticket seemed only to project the trend deeper into the heart of the Arab world, in ways that both inspired and alarmed.
“There is a high level of worry, suspicion and euphoria,” said Labib Kamhawi, a political analyst in the Jordanian capital, Amman. “It all depends on where you stand on the political spectrum.”
The effect in Syria
Nowhere is the impact likely to be more deeply felt than in Syria, where the Syrian branch of the Brotherhood is emerging as a key player in the political opposition to Assad and as a source of contention, illustrating the complex divide playing out across the region between Islamists and secularists, the rulers and the ruled.
At a school outside the Syrian city of Hama now used by activists as a media center, half a dozen Free Syrian Army fighters watched Morsi’s inaugural speech broadcast live on TV from Cairo University. When he pledged to “spare no effort” to support the Syrian revolutionaries in their struggle against Assad, they burst into applause and cries of “God be with you!” said Musab al-Hamadee, an activist who was present and relayed the fighters’ reactions to the speech over Skype.