Editorial: Election marks Egypt watershed

For the first time in about 7000 years Egypt has a democratically elected leader. After days of delay, Mohammed Morsi, a 60-year-old United States-trained engineer, was yesterday declared the winner of the country's first genuine presidential election.

His victory is the fruit of the popular uprising that ousted military strongman Hosni Mubarak in January last year. However, it remains to be seen whether the election changes anything.

Mr Morsi, a technocrat who stood only because the Muslim Brotherhood's preferred candidate Khairat al-Shater was barred from the contest, has begun by making all the right noises. He has resigned from the Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, pledged to preserve Egypt's international accords - a reference to its peace treaty with Israel - and promised to "represent" all Egyptians and appoint non-Muslims to key positions in his new government.

However, the Brotherhood's track record of rabid anti- Israel rhetoric is grounds for concern as is its previous advocacy of Islamic law. In the lead-up to the election the Brotherhood dropped its opposition to women and non- Muslims being allowed to stand for the presidency, but Mr Morsi said he still personally believed that only a male Muslim should be eligible to become president.

Of equal interest is how much freedom the military will allow Mr Morsi. Mubarak has gone and is, reportedly, on his deathbed, but his cronies on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces who helped the former air force officer amass a personal fortune estimated at $41 billion continue to control the purse strings, the army and the police force and have retained for themselves the power to draft Egypt's new constitution. Mr Morsi will be allowed to cut ribbons, welcome visiting dignitaries and enjoy the trappings of office, but the real power in Egypt will continue to lie at military HQ.

Nevertheless, for Egyptians, the Middle East, and the rest of the world the election marks a watershed.

However imperfectly Mr Morsi fits the bill, he is the embodiment of the hopes of the young Egyptians who risked life and limb to bring about the end of the Mubarak regime and the tens of thousands of others who have protested on the streets of Bahrain, Algeria, Yemen, Iran and now Syria.

How he manages the tensions with Egypt's military, relations with Israel and the West and how he treats women and minorities will be watched not only in Egypt but around the globe.

For the West there are bound to be some uncomfortable moments. Popular sentiment on the Arab street is very different from that in Washington, London, Paris or even Wellington.

Ultimately, however, the best guarantor of stability and prosperity in a region that has been too long the plaything of despots and puppets of the West is the election of legitimate governments that represent the will of the people. Give them a stake in the future and they will be less tolerant of bad behaviour by haters in their midst.

The Dominion Post