As we buzzed through the streets of Cairo, gleaming white buildings occasionally popped into view through the windows of our taxis, each one in stark contrast to its surroundings. Each time, the driver's response to our queries was the same -- the buildings were "owned by the military."
The power of the military in Egypt is so strong that many Egyptians, as well as observers around the world, feared that the country's first-ever presidential vote would result in a stolen election. Instead, the persistently peaceful demonstrators in Tahrir Square received news of a landmark victory for this 7,000-year-old civilization: Egypt finally has a democratically elected, civilian leader.
As the jubilation fades, the persistence of a scheming, powerful, military casts a shadow over Egypt. In anticipation of a loss of power that threatens their prestige and pocketbooks, military leaders have weakened the power of the presidency, dissolved the democratically elected parliament, and attempted to control the drafting of the new constitution by vowing to appoint their own 100-member constitutional panel. They have also granted themselves the power of writing their own military budget. Many speculate that the delay in announcing the winner of the election allowed the military to negotiate for additional concessions yet to come to light.
Mohammed Morsi, as the conservative candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, now carries the baggage of sentiments expressed by himself and others in the Brotherhood over the past few years. As he attempts to unify a fractured country under his leadership, he must accept that conservative sentiments restricting the rights of women and promoting purely Islamic laws do not reflect the will of the broad populace. The women of Egypt will not settle for anything less than equal rights. The sizable Coptic Christian population will not accept Islamic law. And many Egyptians have found their voice in the tolerant and inclusive message of last year's revolution.
In his victory speech, President-elect Morsi alluded to each of these challenges. Vowing to serve all Egyptians, indeed naming every possible constituency within the country, Morsi promised that he would not let the blood of the revolutionaries go to waste. As the new president promised full rights to all, regardless of gender or religion, Egyptians heard the echoes of the revolution. Yet the weight of the promise seems beyond human possibility.
This new president, often described as lacking charisma, had sufficient vision to embrace this unlikely moment and reach out toward his people and the world. Morsi knows the eyes of his country and the world are watching with hope and skepticism. His attempt to embrace the inclusive vision of Egypt's liberal revolutionaries while also challenging military authority (by taking his oath of office before the disbanded parliament) provides hope that Egyptian democracy has a chance of success.
Morsi has a unique opportunity to demonstrate what a fair and democratic leader can do in the region. His path is strewn with exceedingly dangerous obstacles at a time when the entire region is searching for a model of Arab democracy. If we truly believe in the value of democracy, the value of freedom, and the power of the people's voice, we will support Egypt and its new president on their journey towards a free and democratic society.
This journey is not just a test of Morsi's commitment to democracy, but also of the ideals expressed by established democracies around the world. It's time we evolved to support a foreign policy that respects the will of a nation's citizens rather than cutting deals with corrupt dictators. It's time that our emissaries support transparency and democracy and eschew back-room deals that protect greedy generals. It's time to turn a page on our old policies and begin a mature relationship with the people of the Middle East.
Egypt has a difficult journey ahead. May it be in peace; may it be with our moral support.
Follow Adil E. Shamoo on Twitter: www.twitter.com/twitter@AShamoo