July 3, 2012
“We face a decisive moment in our history; we must halt the farce of the former regime.”
— Morsi in a television interview before the presidential campaign kicked off
When Cairo’s Tahrir Square erupted in riotous celebration after Mubarak’s capitulation in January last year, the flag-waving Egyptians there perhaps never imagined that within two years they would cheer again for a bespectacled, quiet man, mocked by some as his party’s ‘spare tire.’ It is equally unlikely that those who gave the man that stinging label ever thought he would become the first leader to win a democratic election in Egypt.
Now, global publications are falling over each other to thrust on the ‘spare tire’ a kinder label — the ‘unlikely president.’ Indeed, there has always been an element of improbability in the life and career of Egypt’s new head of state, Mohamed Morsi.
A man jailed several times by Hosni Mubarak himself, the 60-year-old Morsi today occupies the very chair from which the former autocratic president of Egypt was ousted. Coming after a torturous wait of nearly 16 months when the country’s military ran an interim government, Morsi’s victory is historic, to say the least.
The victory not only marks a remarkable change of fortunes for Egypt, which is getting its first taste of democracy after years of dictatorial rule, but also for Morsi’s party, the Muslim Brotherhood, which was banned for decades in the Mubarak era for “anti-government activities.” The Brotherhood is Egypt’s oldest and largest Islamist organization, which essentially means its political ideologies are based on teachings in the Quran. Started in Egypt to propagate the Islamic way of life, the organization grew into a major political movement and went on to influence Islamist movements around the world. The Brotherhood has always made it clear that ‘Islam is the solution’ (their most famous slogan worldwide), a remedy they insist can be realized only through democratic principles.
Egypt observers are still shaking their heads in wonder that Morsi, who was flung into the presidential race at the last moment after a technical glitch prevented the Brotherhood’s preferred choice Khairat al-Shater from running, now has the responsibility of steering Egypt into a new democratic era. Nonetheless, it may do them good to remember that Morsi has always been a man of striking contrasts. He might be a sworn Islamist but he is also a U.S.-trained engineering PhD. As well, he is a leader who has vociferously argued for women’s rights while supporting calls for banning women from contesting for presidency.
Morsi himself sees no contradiction in promising an “Egyptian renaissance with an Islamic foundation.” Nor does he seem to see anything incongruous in endorsing an Islamic vision and supporting democracy in the same breath. In fact, in speech after speech since his election, he has made it clear that his Islamist agenda will be modern and will always support democracy and human rights for all.
Still, his party appears to inspire both devotion and suspicion. After 84 years of struggle as a secret society and the constant hounding and imprisonment of its members, the Brotherhood seems close to realizing its cherished dream of an Islamist democracy in Egypt. But bad press has assailed the organization since Mubarak’s fall. The global media has fretted about the wider ramifications of the Brotherhood coming to power, especially with regard to the upholding of Egypt’s peace agreement with Israel and the country’s relations with the U.S. and Iran. The ‘Brothers’ have also had a tough time convincing the international media that they have played a central role in kick-starting democratic reforms in Egypt.
Morsi, who The Economist believes ‘looks like a typical Brother’ with his baggy suits, rough beard, and air of humility, surely knows more than anybody else, the significance of projecting the right image. Hence, he has been emphasizing that his rule will certainly not be theocratic. Even during his campaign, Morsi took special care to address the already growing criticism against the group. The Haaretz reports that he travelled across the country promoting the Brotherhood’s 80-page manifesto, which stresses a ‘centrist understanding of Islam’ and promotes the group’s vision on a wide range of topics, from maintaining peaceful relations with Israel to tackling inflation.
“You are the source of authority.”
- Morsi addressing the crowd at his swearing-in ceremony
In fact, for a large part of the last decade, Morsi has been the Brotherhood’s behind-the-scenes man, with a reputation for great organizational skills. As the Head of the Freedom and Justice Party, established by the Brotherhood last year to prepare for the post-revolution elections, Morsi has had the daunting task of improving his personal and his party’s credibility. Importantly, he has kept his cool. In fact, all through last year, Morsi is believed to have chalked out a strategy to enhance public confidence in the party, giving it a pluralist image. Given this ability to work in adverse situations, it is no wonder that in the Mubarak era, Morsi had worked as the Brotherhood’s point man for the dreaded State Security, which kept a hawk’s eye on opposition groups.
Like many other ‘Brothers,’ Morsi’s origins have been humble. He was born in 1951 in Edwa, a small village on the Nile Delta. The Haaretz recounts how Morsi has often spoken about his parents’ influence on his career. While his mother taught him to read the Quran, his father, a small-time farmer, insisted that he focus on his studies as well. The eldest of five brothers, Morsi grew up playing with ducks and geese in the dusty lanes of the village and went to school riding a donkey. He went on to study engineering at Cairo University and later, got a scholarship to go to the University of Southern California. But before he left, Morsi was married off to his 17-year-old cousin, Naglaa Ali Mahmoud, which was quite common in the Arab world in those days. Two years later, Naglaa joined Morsi in Los Angeles, where he was studying for his doctorate. The couple had two of their five children in America, where Morsi stayed on for a few more years after completing his doctorate in 1982. After his return from America, Morsi began teaching at the University of Zagazig and decided to sign up to be a member of the Brotherhood, a much-persecuted secret society those days in the mid-80s. Morsi’s cool competence and diligence were noticed, and in 2000, when the Brotherhood was allowed to run in what turned out to be a highly compromised election, he was chosen to represent Zagazig in Parliament. There has been no looking back for Morsi since then.
But as the new president of Egypt, he inherits a country plagued by problems — factionalism, unemployment, poverty, and high inflation. Morsi also has to deal with the powerful military, which has always had enormous clout in Egyptian society. As the presidential campaign gained momentum early this year, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issued a supplementary Constitutional declaration that curtailed many of the President’s powers. On the international front, Egypt’s relations with Israel and the U.S. will challenge Morsi.
Nevertheless, going by past evidence, this particular ‘spare tire’ is not the type to burst under pressure. The deafening cheers Morsi was greeted with at Tahrir Square — where, appropriately, he took a symbolic oath before thousands of supporters on June 29 — are testimony to the growing trust of Egyptians in their “unlikely president.”
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