BANGOR, Maine — Tahrir Square in Cairo erupted Sunday after Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi was elected president in a runoff vote, and a University of Maine student in Cairo was witness to the aftermath of the historic election.
Ian Henderson, a 37-year-old graduate student studying global policy at UMaine, is an intern at the Ibn Khaldun Center, a nongovernmental organization that conducts research in an attempt to promote democracy, human rights, women’s rights and free, fair elections in the Arab world.
“It was electric. I’ve never witnessed anything like Tahrir Square after the announcement,” Henderson said in an email to the Bangor Daily News early Monday. “I witnessed impromptu parades, people were chanting Morsi’s name, [thousands] of Egyptian flags being waved, people shaking hands with strangers or hugging each other in jubilation.
“In short, Egyptians celebrated the birth of democracy and the election of a civilian president for the first time in 80 years,” the Hampden native said.
Henderson said many people he talked to in Cairo feared the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has held control of the country since deposed President Hosni Mubarak stepped down on Feb. 11, 2011, would rig the election in favor of Ahmed Shafiq, who had served as prime minister under Mubarak.
“Egyptians had to choose the least bad option,” Henderson said. “Either a vote for an Islamist that may set Egypt back 100 years socially … or the old regime.”
Mubarak was Egypt’s president for nearly 30 years before he was ousted after 18 days of demonstrations, marches, acts of civil disobedience and labor strikes in the country.
“This made the victory for Morsi a victory for democracy, misgivings about the Brothers or no,” Henderson said.
The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s oldest and largest Islamist organization, is shrouded in controversy. While the organization officially promotes nonviolence, it advocates the ideal of an Islamic state free of foreign influence. Osama bin Laden’s former second-in-command Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who now leads the terrorist organization al-Qaida, also has been linked to the Brotherhood, which he is believed to have joined briefly as a teenager.
Installing a leader with ties to the Brotherhood creates “the possibility for trouble,” according to Henderson.
“[The Brothers] are not great fans of the U.S. or Israel,” he said. “But this feeling people have that they are going to move to install a theocracy is inaccurate. Many of the younger generation of Brothers were in Tahrir for most of the 25 January Revolution.”
“If the Brothers can find balance with secularists, with women’s and Copts’ [Christian] rights, Egypt will be fine,” Henderson said.
Henderson said Turkey is a good model for how religious politicians can reduce the influence of the military in politics, which has allowed Turkey to grow economically and politically.
Had the result of Egypt’s election been different, Henderson said, the situation in Tahrir Square might have taken a turn for the worse.
“The military had already stationed armored vehicles and some tanks in locations in and around Cairo,” Henderson said. “Again, a Shafiq victory would have been an outright defeat for all those who participated in and died during the revolution. [The military] would have used quick, violent responses to put down any protests to Shafiq’s victory — it would have been a scary place to be.”
Henderson said it’s now up to the people of Egypt to bring democracy — something they pushed so hard for during last year’s revolution — to fruition.
“It’s a democracy of their own making, not a Western idealized one that we, as Americans, are so often sure is the only way a democracy can work,” Henderson said. “They will stumble, but the mistakes and successes will be their own.”
An early version of this story incorrectly identified Ian Henderson’s hometown. He is from Hampden, not Hermon.