Newsmakers 2012: Mohamed Morsi, an unlikely peacemaker

Michael Petrou on the Muslim Brotherhood in post-revolution Egypt
Presidential candidate Mohamed Morsy of the Muslim Brotherhood waves to a crowd outside a mosque after attending Friday Prayers in Cairo, June 15, 2012. Activists called for a protest on Friday and Islamists warned that the gains of the revolt that toppled Hosni Mubarak could be wiped out after Egypt’s supreme court dissolved parliament and ruled to keep his last premier in this weekend’s presidential race. REUTERS/Ahmed Jaddalah (EGYPT - Tags: ELECTIONS POLITICS RELIGION)
Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters

Mohamed Morsi was never meant to be president of Egypt. When elections were called following the overthrow of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, it was Khairat el-Shater, deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was chosen as the Islamist movement’s candidate. Morsi was the Brotherhood’s backup choice—derided in jokes as its spare tire.

But then the election commission disqualified Shater because he had recently been released from jail, and Morsi had to step in.

Mohamed el-Beltagy, a leading member of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), founded by the Brotherhood in the wake of the 2011 revolution, was sitting between Morsi and Shater at a Muslim Brotherhood office when they heard the news.

“I saw the look of relief on the face of engineer Khairat el-Shater,” he recalls. Morsi’s expression clouded. He understood the responsibility that had just been thrust upon him and did not look happy about it.

Morsi had good reason to be daunted. Egypt was facing its first genuinely democratic presidential election, one that resulted from a tumultuous, riveting and world-televised revolution that unseated one of the longest-ruling dictators in the Middle East. Tunisia might have been first. Libya was bloodier. But Egypt was home to the Arab Spring uprising that mattered most.

The country remains at the political and cultural heart of the Arab world. Al-Azhar University, more than a thousand years old and arguably the greatest Sunni Muslim learning institution in the world, is in Cairo. Pan-Arabism was born here. It has been a solid American ally (and sponge-like aid recipient) for decades. And Egypt’s treaty with Israel is an anchor of Middle East peace.

The Egyptian president, in short, is a consequential global figure—perhaps never more so than during Egypt’s transition to democracy. Utterly lacking in charm, there seemed to be little about Morsi to convince voters he possessed the personal dynamism required.

But Morsi had the support of the Muslim Brotherhood and its networks throughout the country. He won the first round of voting in June, earning a little less than 25 per cent of the popular vote. In the second and final round, Morsi faced Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister and a man widely perceived as a holdover from the old regime.

Despite his opponent’s tainted past, Morsi almost lost. Barely half of eligible voters cast a ballot, and Morsi finished with less than 53 per cent of the vote. His narrow victory completed Egypt’s unprecedented political transformation, and his own unlikely rise to power. But with the presidency in hand, Morsi faced more substantial challenges than he had achieving it.

Most serious was the threat to civilian rule presented by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which governed Egypt after Mubarak’s departure. Prior to Morsi’s election, it dissolved Parliament and announced a constitutional declaration that gave itself broad legislative and executive powers, including over the army.

To the surprise of many, Morsi didn’t back down. In August, he cancelled the SCAF’s constitutional declaration. He also forced defence minister and SCAF chairman Hussein Tantawi to retire, along with his deputy, Sam Enan. Some 70 top military generals followed them out to pasture. Morsi had stood up to the most powerful institution in Egypt and prevailed.

“One has to recognize that he has certain skills,” says Mustapha Kamel Al Sayyid, a professor of political science at Cairo University. “The way he removed the top commanders of the armed forces, this took skill. Technically speaking, well done.”

Early indications suggest Morsi’s approach to Egypt’s foreign relations will differ sharply from Mubarak’s. During his first speech to the United Nations in September, he called for “an end to the colonialism and the settlements and changes to the identity of occupied Jerusalem.” In the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, Morsi backed Hamas even as he helped broker a ceasefire deal with the United States. Though he never met or spoke directly with any Israelis, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heaped on the praise, thanking Morsi for his “personal leadership to de-escalate the situation in Gaza and end the violence.” The prestige of mediating peace is already reaping rewards for Morsi, who seeks to re-establish Egypt as a regional power.

Morsi says Egypt will honour its peace treaty with Israel. Mindful of the hundreds of millions of dollars Egypt still receives from the United States, he has been careful not to antagonize America—a country where he lived for 10 years while obtaining a Ph.D. in engineering and teaching at California State University at Northridge.

Besides, the country has bigger problems at home.

Egypt’s economy was weak before the revolution, and the subsequent instability hasn’t improved it. The official unemployment rate now stands at about 13 per cent. Tourism remains at subterranean levels.

“I personally want to give Morsi a chance,” says a resident of one of Cairo’s poorer districts. “The country was in a very bad situation. It will not be built in two months.”

This sort of patience will not last forever. Like politicians anywhere else, Morsi can blame his predecessor for a time, but will eventually have to take responsibility for the state of the country’s economy.

In the meantime, Morsi’s approval rating remains high. He lacks the imperial pretences of his predecessor and so manages to appeal to Egyptians despite his dull personality. When he visits a mosque, only a small security detail accompanies him.

His wife, Naglaa Ali Mahmoud, is plain-looking and wears an Islamic headscarf tight around her face. She declines titles and prefers to be known simply as Um Ahmed, a nickname that identifies her as the mother of her eldest son. She could not be more different than Suzanne Mubarak, the former president’s wife, with her degree from the American University in Cairo, stylish clothes and uncovered hair.

According to Mahmoud Ghozlan, a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman who has known Morsi for years, the president is humble even among friends. He was quick to apologize to Ghozlan following a disagreement, though Ghozlan was to blame. Morsi insisted on kissing Ghozlan’s head to erase any lingering bad feelings.

“He calls himself not only a president, but a servant of all Egypt,” says Ghozlan.

FOR MANY Egyptians, what matters most about Morsi are his deep roots in the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi officially resigned from the Brotherhood and its FJP political wing upon winning the presidency, fulfilling a campaign pledge. But to most Egyptians he remains a Muslim Brother at heart.

Founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, the Muslim Brotherhood was born as an amalgamation of religious conviction and political protest. It opposed British colonialism, and then Egypt’s own secular dictators, all the while striving to bring about a state governed by sharia, or Islamic law.

It has been officially banned for most of its history. The abuse its members suffered, combined with years of underground survival, has made it a tightly disciplined organization—while persistent outreach efforts and its provision of social services to the poor has earned the group broad popular support.

The Brotherhood once had a paramilitary wing, and was accused of the attempted assassination of president Gamal Abdul Nasser in 1954. The 1960s writings of Sayyid Qutb, a prominent member, inspired Osama bin Laden and other violent Islamists. It has since renounced violence and tried to enter the political mainstream. Yet its history, and especially the primacy it places on sharia, worry those who believe Morsi’s ties to the Brotherhood make him incorrigibly illiberal.

“How could he be committed to democracy?” asks Walid Kaziha, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo.

“His making, his whole being, has been largely influenced by being a member of the Brotherhood. And being a member of the Brotherhood means that you will not accept atheists, you will not accept people who disagree with you on this fundamental question: is your reference point going to be reason, or is it going to be faith?

“If he is good-intentioned and tolerant, he might tolerate. But I as a citizen do not want to be tolerated—I want to have my say.”

Morsi’s past doesn’t suggest a tolerant mind. Last year, he urged a boycott of an Egyptian cellphone company because its Christian founder had tweeted a cartoon of Mickey Mouse with a long beard and Minnie wearing a veil.

He has struck a more moderate tone of late. He reached out to Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 per cent of Egypt’s population, during his victory speech. And he appointed Christians to his advisory team.

Still, Morsi is haunted by the perception that he’s a spare tire whose personal convictions are irrelevant.

“I’m not sure that there’s anything about him as an individual that matters,” says Mahmoud Salem, a blogger and a prominent liberal activist. “I’m not saying he’s not smart. It’s just that we don’t think he’s in charge.”

The real power in Egypt, according to Salem, lies with the Brotherhood’s Guidance Office, and particularly with Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie. Morsi is simply a personification of the party—“something very bland and incompetent, but with a beard.”

Beltagy of the Freedom and Justice Party says this is nonsense. Morsi is his own man and runs the presidency independent of either the Muslim Brotherhood or the FJP.

It may be that Morsi’s lack of swagger sows doubts about his capacity for leadership. One Mubarak supporter scrolled through numerous smart-phone photos of the former president taken during international meetings and compared them with similar shots of Morsi. The lesson, he insisted, was that Morsi simply doesn’t project authority.

Morsi himself might not disagree. Egypt had a strongman in Hosni Mubarak and rejected him. While campaigning, Morsi stressed the importance of the presidency as an institution, rather than an individual title. “The Superman era,” he said, “is over.”