Egypt's Islamist presidential candidate cashing in on resentment of old regime

CAIRO - The Muslim Brotherhood's candidate for the Egyptian presidential runoff has promised he will break sharply with the ways of ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak, a day after angry protesters burned down the headquarters of his challenger who served as prime minister in the old regime.

Islamist Mohammed Morsi appeared to be trying to cash in on public resentment of his rival Ahmed Shafiq's ties to Mubarak at a Tuesday news conference where he offered something for everyone, from the military to the revolutionaries, women and minority Christians. Morsi has been scrambling to broaden his base of support ahead of the June 16-17 runoff.

"When I am president, the presidency will not be reduced to one person," he said. "The age of superman has failed and gone. The world is no longer like that. I am not like that."

Morsi's comments came hours after some 400 protesters chanting slogans against Shafiq stormed and vandalized his Cairo campaign headquarters. The protesters set the building ablaze after making away with computers, television sets and air conditioners.

Shafiq was the last prime minister appointed by Mubarak before he stepped down in February 2011 in the face of a popular uprising against his autocratic rule. The attack on Shafiq's headquarters was reminiscent of some of the most dramatic scenes of the uprising when protesters burned down the ruling party headquarters.

In Cairo's Tahrir square, birthplace of the uprising, protesters chanted slogans against both Morsi and Shafiq. Similar protests took place in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria and elsewhere in northern Egypt.

Morsi claimed the top spot in the first round of landmark elections last week, putting him in the runoff against Shafiq who, like his longtime friend and mentor Mubarak, is a former air force commander.

The attack on Shafiq's headquarters underlined the depth of resentment felt by many toward Shafiq, viewed by critics as an extension of the Mubarak regime. And Morsi moved quickly to use it for political gain, making a host of generous promises he said he would keep if elected.

He also used his televised news conference to fend off against charges that the group was seeking to garner more power after winning just under half of all seats in parliament and reversing an earlier decision not to field a presidential candidate.

He promised to place Christians in top government jobs and said he would not impose an Islamic dress code in public for women.

"Our Christian brothers, they are partners in the nation. They will have full rights that are equal to those enjoyed by Muslims," Morsi said. "They will be represented as advisers in the presidential institution, and maybe a vice-president if possible."

Women, he said, will have full rights in jobs and education.

"Women have a right to freely choose the attire that suits them," he said.

But his overtures may be a hard sell for some

"It is his right to make propaganda for himself just as I have the right to listen to his words with one ear and let them out from the next," said Girgis Atef, a veteran of the uprising that toppled Mubarak 15 months ago. "More than anyone else, the Brotherhood makes promises it never keeps," said the 35-year-old Atef.

Samer S. Shehata, an Egypt expert from Georgetown University, said Morsi would not be able to honour all these promises. He needed to negotiate specifics with those whose support he is trying to enlist, he added, citing pro-democracy groups and candidates who fared well in the first round but not enough to make it to the runoff vote, like leftist Hamdeen Sabahi and moderate Islamist Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh. They came third and fourth respectively.

"This is unlikely to win him Christian votes or demonstrate a real commitment to complete equality regardless of religion," Shehata said of Morsi's assurances to the minority Christians who have long complained of discrimination in mainly Muslim Egypt.

"In order to be more credible, Morsi should negotiate with Sabahi, Abolfotoh and the revolutionary youth about concrete commitments and positions, about the specifics of the civil nature of the state, political and personal freedoms, and constitutional principles."

Morsi, 60, also praised the generals who took over from Mubarak, though he acknowledged that mistakes were made while they managed the transitional period.

"There is not a single Egyptian who doesn't like the military. The military played a glorious rule in protecting the revolution," Morsi said. "There were mistakes, yes, but also positive steps. Among those positive steps is the elections held under the protection of the police and military."

He vowed there would be no clashes or charges of treason against the military, suggesting that he has no intention of entertaining calls by some pro-democracy groups for the generals to be tried for alleged crimes during the past 15 months.

The groups blame the military for killing scores of protesters, torturing detainees and putting at least 12,000 civilians on trial before military tribunals.

Morsi also vowed to create a broad coalition government that is not led by a Brotherhood figure, and said the country's new constitution would be written by a panel that is truly representative of the nation.

The Brotherhood and other Islamists, who control more than 70 per cent of parliament's seats, packed the original constitutional panel with their own supporters in a bid to influence the charter. However, a court ruling disbanded it on the grounds that it did not observe the rules of selection spelled out in a constitutional declaration adopted last year.