CAIRO (Reuters) - The Muslim Brotherhood’s new presidential candidate, pitched into the race after its first choice was disqualified, promised on Saturday to govern in coalition and to steady Egypt after more than a year of political turmoil.
Mohamed Mursi, 59, the head of the Brotherhood’s political party, said he would seek the votes of ultra-conservative Muslims after a popular hardline Salafi candidate was barred too, but he promised to be a president for all Egyptians.
The quietly spoken engineer is trying to make up ground after Khairat al-Shater, a millionaire businessman and top Brotherhood strategist, was blocked from running because of a conviction handed down in President Hosni Mubarak’s era when the Islamist group was banned.
The Brotherhood’s broad grass-roots network will help Mursi, but rival Islamists and liberal candidates who served under Mubarak have campaigned longer and can boast better name recognition.
Mursi also needs to prove that as the Brotherhood’s reserve candidate he has the authority to lead the Arab world’s most populous nation after a turbulent transition led by generals who took power after Mubarak was ousted 14 months ago.
“The word ‘reserve’ is over ... Now the Brotherhood and (its) Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) has a candidate with a clear program in this election,” Mursi told Reuters in an interview shortly before his first campaign news conference.
“I hope the people will choose me, an Islamist candidate from the FJP and Muslim Brotherhood, and God willing the system will move towards stability and development,” he said.
The election is the final stage in Egypt’s transition to civilian rule. The army has said it will hand over power by July 1, but the military, which has provided every president for six decades and has sprawling business interests, is expected to be a powerful player behind the scenes for years.
The outcome of the race is being closely watched around the region, where Egypt has long had an influential role, and in the West, wary of the rise of Islamists in a nation that in 1979 became the first Arab state to make peace with Israel.
Asked about relations with Israel, Mursi said: “Egypt’s next president can’t be like his predecessor, he can’t be a follower who executes policies put to him from outside,” referring to popular criticism of Mubarak as a man who did U.S. bidding.
An aide said Mursi was committed to the Brotherhood’s pledge to uphold international treaties, a reference to the peace deal. But the aide said Mursi would not meet Israeli officials as president, though his foreign minister would.
Mursi, echoing the position of his party which dominates parliament, promised to reach out and govern in coalition.
“A coalition government led by the majority party is what will achieve the will of the people,” he told a news conference, where his more modest demeanor contrasted with the powerful delivery of the burly Shater when he addressed reporters.
Shater’s first news conference was accompanied by carefully choreographed videos and music, absent from Saturday’s event.
Though the Brotherhood has pledged to be inclusive, liberals and other rivals have accused it of hogging power by securing the biggest bloc in parliament and dominating an assembly to draw up the constitution, prompting rivals to walk out. That assembly has now been suspended.
It also broke its initial vow not to run for the presidency.
Rivals also question the independence of any Brotherhood candidate, saying he would take orders from the group’s top authority, the supreme guide, and this would push Egypt towards a theocracy. Mursi dismissed this, saying “there is no room for talk about decisions coming from outside the presidency.”
Mursi’s main rivals in the race are Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister, Mubarak’s last prime minister and ex-air force commander Ahmed Shafiq, and Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, a moderate Islamist expelled from the Brotherhood for announcing his presidential bid last year against the group’s wishes.
The competition was reduced by the disqualification of one Islamist contender, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, whose Salafi views are much stricter than the Brotherhood’s. Mursi said he would try to pick up the Salafi vote.
“The vote of the Salafis and the (Salafi) al-Nour party is of course targeted, as are other votes of Egyptians,” he said, adding the Brotherhood was coordinating with Nour and Salafi figures but they had yet to announce who they would back.
The next president’s handling of the army will be closely scrutinized at home and abroad. The army sparked violent protests last year when its cabinet presented proposals for the new constitution that would have permanently shielded the military from civilian oversight.
Mursi said no “entity will be above the constitution” but did not spell out his vision for the army’s status. He said the army’s budget should be overseen by parliament but there would be a need for secrecy in specific areas.
He also said he would consult the army over who would be defense minister in a new cabinet.
The Brotherhood opposed the army’s constitutional proposals but has become less confrontational. Analysts say it wants to avoid a conflict that could jeopardize the huge political strides it has made after years of repression under Mubarak.
Mursi served one term in parliament under Mubarak, notionally as an independent to skirt a ban on the Brotherhood, but lost his seat in the 2005 race, which was widely seen as rigged. The Brotherhood’s gains now have brought it closer to power than at any time in its 84-year history.
Outlining measures for improving the battered economy, Mursi identified security, Egypt’s heaving traffic and the health hazards of street garbage as priority areas, issues that worry the public and are often raised in parliamentary campaigns.
Economists say Egypt needs swift action to bring back investors and tourists to stave off a balance of payments crisis.
Additional reporting by Marwa Awad; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Tim Pearce