The Muslim Brotherhood’s new presidential candidate, pitched into the race after its first choice was disqualified, pledged on Saturday to govern in coalition and to steady Egypt after more than a year of political turmoil.
An aide to Mohamed Mursi said he was committed to all of Egypt’s international obligations, but that he would not not meet with Israeli officials if elected president.
Mursi’s comments came a day after tens of thousands of Egyptians – both Islamists and youth activists – rallied in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand that their military rulers stick to a pledge to hand over power by mid-year.
Mursi, age 59 and head of the Brotherhood’s political party, told a news conference he would seek the votes of hard-line Salafis, but promised to be a president for all Egyptians.
Asked about relations with Israel, he 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 US 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.
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 leading Salafi candidate, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, was also barred from running due to his late mother’s US citizenship.
“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, referring to his status as a “backup” candidate behind Shater. “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.”
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.
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.
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.
Mursi’s main rivals in the race are Amr Moussa, a nationalist former foreign minister, and Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, an Islamist expelled from the Brotherhood for announcing his presidential bid last year against the group’s wishes.
“The vote of the Salafis and the [Salafi] al-Nour party is of course targeted, as are other votes of Egyptians,” he said, adding that the Brotherhood was coordinating with Nour and Salafi figures but had yet to announce who it would back.
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 the army’s budget should be overseen by parliament, and that he would consult the army over who would be defense minister in a new cabinet. He said no “entity will be above the constitution” but did not spell out his vision for the army’s status.
Protesters at Friday’s rally said they felt their revolution remains unfinished.
“We are all here to protect the revolution and complete its demands,” said Sayed Gad, 38, a pharmacist and Brotherhood member.
“Down with military rule” and “The people want the execution of the marshal,” some protesters chanted, a reference to Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak’s defense minister for two decades who now leads the ruling military council.
Some demonstrators sheltered under awnings and umbrellas to shade them from the sun. Many waved Egyptian flags.
Although the protest passed off peacefully through the day, minor scuffles erupted between some Islamists and vendors in the square late into the night.
Witnesses said some protesters also threw stones and banged on the sides of buses carrying Brotherhood members as they tried to drive away, screaming, “You sold the revolution.”
Thousands also gathered in the second city Alexandria and turned out in some other cities.
The hours after weekly prayers at mosques on Fridays are traditional times for protests.
“No to remnants. No to military rule,” read one banner that carried pictures of Mubarak’s last prime minister.
Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force commander, and of Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister.
They are both strong contenders, especially now that the Brotherhood’s Shater has been disqualified.
Friday’s demonstration was the first in months to bring Islamists and liberals together.
Some of those gathered called for protesters to camp out in the square, as has happened in some previous protests since Mubarak was ousted.
“Those who left the square in difficult times must come back and not leave until the revolution’s demands are met,” Kamal Helbawy, who quit the Brotherhood after its U-turn over a presidential bid, told protesters from one of the podiums.
Hundreds of soccer fans, or “ultras,” gathered just off Tahrir. In February, clashes erupted in that street after 74 supporters of the popular Al- Ahli soccer club were killed in stadium violence that fans blamed on bad policing.
Ultras were also blamed for a September rush on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo that led to the evacuation of most of the embassy staff.
On Friday there was no immediate sign of a fresh flare-up, however, as fans chanted slogans against the military and praising those who had died.
Although broadly united in criticism of the army, the demands of Islamists and liberals are not fully aligned. Non- Islamists fret about the strength of political Islam after Islamists – notably the Brotherhood and Salafis – swept a parliamentary vote in December.
But most demonstrators sought to play down any rivalries in Friday’s protest.
“Hand in hand,” protesters chanted, while one banner read: “Together against the continuation of army rule.”
The April 6 youth group, which helped galvanize the anti-Mubarak demonstrations last year, had called for Friday’s protests in part to demand that new criteria be laid down to ensure a diverse make-up for the constituent assembly.
Also among the protesters were Abu Ismail supporters.
From a stage in Tahrir Square where his supporters had also gathered on Friday, people chanted over loudspeakers: “Islamic revolution! With our soul and blood, we sacrifice for Islam!” and “The Koran is the constitution!” Hundreds of his supporters, among the last remaining in the square, vowed to stay overnight to express their anger at his disqualification.