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As Morsi takes symbolic oath, many fear the 'Islamization of Egyptian society'

Amr Nabil / AP

Egypt's President-elect Mohammed Morsi waves to supporters at Tahrir Square, the focal point of Egyptian uprising, in Cairo on Friday, June 29, 2012.

Today my best and oldest friend in Egypt told me she is going abroad to prepare paperwork in the event she decides to leave her country. It's very painful to even write that sentence and even harder to reread it. My friend is Egyptian, a devout Muslim, a patriot and yet she is preparing a plan B of escape, as so many others here have done, because she fears Egypt is turning into another Iran.

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Among her concerns, she mentions female self-appointed moral police, veiled from head to toe, admonishing other women that they will go to hell unless they dress conservatively. I arrived in Egypt a long time ago. To give you an idea just how long ago, NBC used an old telex machine and an even older poorly functioning landline to communicate abroad. My friend helped me master the essential skill of typing my message on a thin paper strip that I would then re-feed through the machine. Suffice to say, she was the most patient of teachers.


One of the most impressive sights to me at the time was seeing unveiled and veiled women walking down the street together, arm in arm, no judgment and no pressure to dress a certain way. In those days, most women were unveiled. As a foreigner, I always felt welcomed and only distinguished as an American by the fact that almost every cab driver would give me the thumbs up sign, upon learning my nationality, and say cheerfully, "America, number one!" 

But Egypt is changing. Today, Egypt's President-elect Mohammed Morsi punctuated his first speech to the nation with a promise to work for the release of convicted terrorist, Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman. Morsi addressed tens of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist followers in Tahrir Square, taking an unofficial oath of office before the people who put him there. He described it as the real oath rather than the oath that he will take tomorrow before the general assembly of the Constitutional Court, rejecting the legal decision that dismantled an illegitimately constituted parliament and rejecting the military's additions to the constitution that would prevent him from controlling the military.

Egypt elections only the beginning of a transitional process

Morsi underlined several times that the people were the source of power and decision-making, not the institutions. Despite the fact that he initially addressed all Egyptians, Muslim and Christian, men and women, and all countries in the free world, Muslim and non-Muslim, his message was in fact directed to the hardcore constituency in front of him, fervent Islamists who would eventually like to see Egypt become an Islamic state governed by Islamic religious law. 

Although President-elect Morsi repeated a message of love for all Egyptians, the vast majority of Egyptians have little in common with the Islamists who now crowd Tahrir Square. 

"He handed power to the mob," lamented a Coptic Christian viewer on a talk show following the speech.

Egypt has elected a conservative president who has said he wants to impose Islamic law. How he will change the country remains unclear. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

Many felt it was improper to take the oath of office in Tahrir Square rather than before the Constitutional Court. "It's basically very amateurish," said Hisham Kassem, veteran publisher. "He made lots of mistakes to the point you think he's going to be a trial-and-error president... making a promise to hand over Omar Abdul Rahman, the first man to attack the World Trade Center. He will never be released. He is just going to annoy the Americans now," Kassem said.

"[Taking the oath of office in Tahrir] eroded his legitimacy. If he is banking on the street, it's not very savvy, his presidency will collapse in a year if he banks on that," Kassem added.

Analysis: Egypt's big turn under the Muslim Brotherhood

Morsi's impassioned speech is more likely to add to the atmosphere of uncertainty rather than quell it. By telling the crowded square that they were the source of power, Morsi thumbed his nose at the military generals who are trying to deny him control over the Ministry of Defense and the judiciary that has dissolved the parliament due to party members competing for independent seats.  

Most Egyptians just want to get the country -- which many say is close to the brink of economic collapse -- back on track. They would rather hear about plans for restoring tourism, creating jobs and ending bottled gas and gasoline shortages than stoking anger against the military. Most would rather see Tahrir Square become a main thoroughfare, open to traffic. Instead, Morsi has further empowered the party faithful who are camped out there. 

During the past week, the president-elect has reached out to those who are most apprehensive of a Muslim Brotherhood president, Egypt's eight million Coptic Christians, by meeting with their religious leaders.

"We are worried about the Islamization of Egyptian society," said Father Fafic Greiche, a church spokesman, in an interview with Vatican Radio. He also met with opposition parties and youth groups to discuss forming a new government that people hope will be representative of Egypt's women and secular and socially progressive groups. 

The Muslim Brotherhood party also went on the offensive to stem fears women have about the rise to power of an Islamist. A party spokesman posted a message on the official website blaming other parties for a deliberate smear campaign by linking "individuals attacking women or girls or women's hairdressers claiming to be religious police" to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Female Member of Parliament Azza al Garf condemned the severe sexual attack on a British journalism student in Tahrir Square on the day Morsi was declared president and demanded perpetrators be brought to justice. Ironically, Al Garf herself has been sued by a women's rights non-governmental organization for wanting to reverse Egyptian laws that criminalize sexual harassment and female genital mutilation. 

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