CAIRO – Islamist candidate Mohammed Morsi declared victory Monday in Egypt's first free presidential election since Hosni Mubarak's ouster 16 months ago. But just as polls were closing, the ruling military council issued constitutional amendments that gave sweeping authority to maintain its grip on power and subordinate the nominal head of state.
After the last-minute power grab Sunday night, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) pledged Monday to honor its promise to hand over power to the newly elected president by the end of this month. But the constitutional amendments stripped the president of almost all significant powers. The military decreed that it will have legislative authority after a court dissolved parliament, it will control of the drafting a new constitution and will not allow civilian oversight of its significant economic interests or other affairs.
Morsi represents the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic fundamentalist group which has emerged as the most powerful political faction since the uprising. The Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party rejected the constitutional declaration, saying it was no longer within the authority of the military council to issue such a decree with less than two weeks left for the transfer of power.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman George Little urged the ruling military to transfer full power to a democratically elected civilian government, as it pledged to do in the past.
"We are deeply concerned about the new amendments to the constitutional declaration, including the timing of their announcement as polls were closing for the presidential election," said Little.
The constitutional declaration made almost simultaneously with polls Sunday night was the third major blow in a week to hopes for a democratic transition that arose from the uprising. On Wednesday, the military gave itself broad powers to arrest civilians even on minor offenses such as traffic violations. And on Thursday, a court stacked with Mubarak-era appointees dissolved parliament.
The Freedom and Justice party also rejected the dissolution of parliament.
"The People's Assembly stands and has legislative and oversight authority," the party said in a statement posted on its website.
Maj-Gen. Mohammed al-Assar, a senior member of the ruling council, said the generals would transfer power in a "grand ceremony." He did not give an exact date or mention Morsi by name. He said the new president will have the authority to appoint and dismiss the government and that the military council has no intention of taking away any of the president's authorities.
"We'll never tire or be bored from assuring everyone that we will hand over power before the end of June," al-Assar told a televised news conference.
Though official results have not yet been announced, the Brotherhood released a tally that showed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood took nearly 52 percent of the vote to defeat Mubarak's last Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq with about 48 percent in a very close race. The count was based on results announced by election officials at individual polling centers, where each campaign has representatives who compile and release the numbers before the formal announcement.
The Shafiq campaign rejected Morsi's claim of victory and accused him to trying to "usurp" the presidency or lay the groundwork to challenge the official result if it shows Shafiq winning.
"What the other candidate has done threatens Egypt's future and stability," said the statement, adding that initial indications show that Shafiq is undoubtedly ahead with between 51.5 to 52 percent.
If Morsi's victory is confirmed in the official result expected on Thursday, it would be the first victory of an Islamist as head of state in the stunning wave of pro-democracy uprisings that swept the Middle East the past year. But the military's last minute power grab sharpens the possibility of confrontation and more of the turmoil that has beset Egypt since Mubarak's overthrow.
By midday, several hundred flag-waving supporters had gathered at Cairo's Tahrir Square, the birthplace of the uprising, to celebrate.
In a victory speech at his headquarters in the middle of the night, Morsi, 60, clearly sought to assuage the fears of many Egyptians that the Brotherhood will try to impose stricter provisions of Islamic law. He said he seeks "stability, love and brotherhood for the Egyptian civil, national, democratic, constitutional and modern state" and made no mention of Islamic law.
"Thank God, who successfully led us to this blessed revolution. Thank God, who guided the people of Egypt to this correct path, the road of freedom, democracy," the bearded, U.S.-educated engineer declared.