The villa and the ministry

I arrived at the headquarters of Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohammed Morsi shortly before 4am on Monday, when the campaign had said it would announce its final internal tally of the votes then being counted across Egypt.

I arrived at the headquarters of Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohammed Morsi shortly before 4am on Monday, when the campaign had said it would announce its final internal tally of the votes then being counted across Egypt.

The campaign’s headquarters sits in an impressive three-storey villa in the heart of central Cairo that faces, within a stone’s throw across the street, the imposing block-long edifice of the interior ministry, the institution perhaps most responsible for surveilling, arresting and abusing Brotherhood members throughout the movement’s 84-year history.

The streets surrounding the ministry and the villa are sealed by walls of enormous concrete blocks to keep protesters at bay, and a cordon of barbed wire manned by armed riot police funnels cars into the road between the two buildings.

A police commander in a white uniform watched the media scrum from the street, while other men leaned out of high interior ministry windows, their faces obscured in pre-dawn shadows.

Inside, a bank of photographers waited on a staircase, their cameras trained on a doorway blocked by a row of Brothers in suits that led to a room where Morsi was meeting with Essam el-Arian and Saad el-Katatni, Brotherhood leaders who hold top positions in its Freedom and Justice Party.

They were confident and smiling. The Brotherhood’s vaunted organisation, with tens of thousands of election observers stationed in each of the country’s more than 13,000 polling stations, was predicting that Morsi would beat Ahmed Shafik, a former prime minister and air force lieutenant general who personifies the Mubarak regime to opponents.

Even the outbursts of excitement were orderly. When campaign spokesman Murad Ali and began his preamble to the results, half a dozen men in the press briefing room rose from their seats and chanted “the free revolutionaries will continue on the path” before ending, simultaneously, with one repetition of the now-common refrain: “down, down with military rule”.

When Ali finally gave the numbers – putting Morsi above 12 million votes, with nearly a million more than Shafik – the Brotherhood members gave a sustained applause. Then shouts of “God is great” came from the back the room, and the media scrambled as word came that Morsi would appear. A line of Brothers clasped hands to clear a path. Among the crowd, men dabbed away tears, shook hands and embraced, planting kisses on each others heads.

Morsi entered in a crush of supporters and security with Katatni and Erian by his side. For a moment, the stage was rushed by ebullient Brothers, kept at bay from a seemingly serene Morsi – his expression calm behind his wide glasses – by a line of bodyguards.

When he spoke, he praised virtually every segment of Egyptian society, from the martyrs mothers and labourers to Al Azhar theological seminary and the Coptic Christian church.

“Thank God who led successfully us to this blessed revolution. Thank God who guided the people of Egypt to this correct path, the road of freedom, democracy,” he said. “We are not about taking revenge or settling scores. We are all brothers of this nation, we own it together, and we are equal in rights and duties.”

Then, in another crush of security, Morsi and his entourage were gone. The press filed out, collecting identification cards they had turned in at the door, while supporters from other movements and curious bystanders pushed to get inside. As a cheering crowd milled in the street, Morsi appeared for a moment on the balcony, waving.

Through the door several minutes later came Morsi, surrounded by bodyguards who guided him into compact SUV that rolled down the street, through the riot police cordon, escorted by jogging members of the security team.

This was a Brotherhood far from the bearded menace the Shafik campaign and some writers and politicians have portrayed and feared. In practice, it was nearly indistinguishable from a professional American presidential campaign, highly disciplined and media savvy. It even counted votes faster than the government.

On the street, Brotherhood security coordinated traffic, walkie-talkie ear pieces dangling from their suit jackets. SUVs and Mercedes-Benz sedans inched through the crowd and then sped away into the light of the breaking dawn. One SUV backed into a covered riot police pick up truck, earning a surprised honk from the officer behind the wheel.

It was, for onlookers, a glimpse of a Brotherhood unshackled from state constraints, flexing its muscles for the briefest of moment. A campaign staffer on the balcony led shouts of “the presidency and the parliament,” a concept that must shock a government apparatus, especially an interior ministry, so accustomed to unchallenged authority.

As we walked away, a Brotherhood Mercedes drove past a group of police commanders standing outside the ministry’s main gate. A commander waved the car past, but the car wasn’t pausing. He joked as it turned a corner: “I should’ve asked for their ID.”

It was a moment the Brotherhood had spent 84 years waiting for, and they looked as though they had won a war. But with the official vote unknown, Shafik’s campaign denying its loss and the military stretching its power across nearly all branches of government, whether Monday was the movement’s coronation or its high-water mark remains to be seen.