Egyptian presidential candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Mursi, on Tuesday sought to dispel fears he would impose Sharia (Islamic law) if elected president, voicing his support for women’s rights and freedom of expression and saying Coptic Christians would be his “partners” in building the country.
Mursi, who will square off against former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq in the second round of the presidential election in June, said he is committed to a system of checks and balances where powers are separated.
“We want a democratic, national state with a separation of powers,” he said, adding that his goal is to “build a free and democratic Egypt that will enjoy social justice.”
The U.S.-educated engineer and the head of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party said his priority as president would be restoring security and order to the country after 15 months of unrest that has inflicted significant damage on the economy raised the levels of poverty and unemployment.
Mursi also sought the backing of frustrated liberal voters, who found themselves after the first round election results torn between an Islamist who may later turn against them and an old regime figure who has hinted at ruling the country with an iron grip.
He pledged to “preserve the right for peaceful protest and demonstration” and vowed to respect women’s rights and their freedom to wear the “hijab (Islamic headscarf) or any dress of their choice.”
This statement appears to be a major concession by an Islamist leader who had pledged during his campaign to impose Sharia, which includes a strict dress code for women.
He also sought to reassure the country’s Coptic Christians, the majority of whom reportedly voted for his rival Shafiq in the second round.
“The Copts are partners in the nation and they have all their rights,” Mursi said, adding that Christians “will have a role” in the presidency if he is elected. All the “Egyptians are equal in rights and obligations,” he said.
“Our Christian brothers, let's be clear, are national partners and have full rights like Muslims.”
Farrag Ismail, a veteran Egyptian Journalist and political expert, said Mursi’s statement was an “important change in the course of the Brotherhood’s presidential campaign.”
During the first round of election campaigning, Ismail said, the Brotherhood focused on their “Renaissance Project” and now – in the second-round campaign– they are focusing more on democracy and human rights.
“What Mursi said today was a pledge that he will not implement Sharia and that the state will be democratic and constitutional,” Ismail added.
“We saw how he used the word ‘constitutional,’ meaning that the state will be committed to the text of the constitution, which will be written by a broad and varied base of national forces.
“He avoided stating the term ‘civilian state’ because the Brotherhood view it to be used by some people as a substitute for ‘secular,’ a concept that is hated in the Egyptian society,” Ismail said.
According to Ismail, the fact that Mursi promised Egypt’s Coptic Christians that they will be his “partners” in power and decision making was “historical.”
“No such pledge has ever been made to Copts in the history of modern Egypt. Today, this is an Islamist making that pledge,” Ismail added.
But Hani Nesira, an expert in Egypt’s current affairs, saw no major policy change issues being highlighted in Mursi’s speech.
He said the Islamist candidate’s statements were “riddled with contradictions with no visible change of position about the idea of a civilian state that respects human rights.”
“When Mursi clearly acknowledges the right of women and Christians to occupy any position in the country, including the position of the president, only then that we can say there is a change in the Brotherhood’s policy.
“Until now, it is still the same old traditional rhetoric of presenting the Brotherhood’s views in a simplistic and ambiguous manner,” Nesira said.