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Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi: Profile

Arab World’s First Elected Islamist President


Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi: Profile

President Mohammed Morsi shoulders enormous responsibility of steering Egypt out of a messy transition period toward a stable political system. The outcome will have a profound impact on the entire Arab world.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Mohammed Morsi is Egypt’s first democratically elected president after the popular uprising that overthrew former leader Hosni Mubarak in early 2011. He is also the Arab world’s first elected Islamist head of state. Morsi shoulders enormous responsibility of steering Egypt out of a messy transition period toward a stable political system, acceptable both to Islamists and secular Egyptians, Muslims and Coptic Christians. The outcome will have a profound impact on the entire Arab world.

Political Background: Islamist Opposition to a Secular Dictatorship

Morsi won a narrow victory at the June 2012 presidential elections as the candidate of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), established by the Muslim Brotherhood after the 2011 uprising. The Brotherhood is Arab World’s oldest and most powerful Islamist movement, which has spent decades in opposition to Egypt’s military-led, secular dictatorships.

The first parliamentary elections after Mubarak’s fall where held in late 2011, and the FJP emerged as the most powerful and best-organized political force in Egypt. Although Morsi formally resigned as party chief after being elected president – to signal he was going to work for the good of all Egyptians – there’s no doubt that his funding, electoral support and ideological underpinnings come from the Brotherhood and its political arm, the FJP.

Bio: Party Worker

Born in 1951 in the Nile Delta province of Sharqiya, Morsi is a seasoned member of Brotherhood’s mainstream leadership, with a typical combination of modest rural background, conservative social views and a successful professional career. An engineer by training, Morsi completed his PhD at the University of Southern California in 1982, and rose in Brotherhood’s ranks to become member of the group’s top executive body.

Morsi was above all a party worker who had stayed out of public limelight. His experience in electoral politics includes two terms in Egyptian parliament, but apart from a few fiery speeches there was nothing remarkable about his record there. He remained largely unknown to the general Egyptian public until the 2011 uprising.

2012 Presidential Elections

Morsi’s big moment in 2012 was in large part due to good fortune. He became the FJP’s presidential candidate in the last moment, after disqualification of Khairat Al Shater, the Brotherhood’s first choice. Neither flamboyant nor particularly charismatic, Morsi ran a rushed and bland campaign, but Brotherhood’s unrivalled grassroots network secured a narrow victory against Ahmad Shafiq, former Mubarak’s minister.

Main Challenges in Office

Morsi took office at a time when Egypt had no constitution that would define his powers vis-à-vis the powerful military and the judiciary. More or less an enigma before the elections, Morsi has shown himself a driven, intelligent and ruthless politician, but faces several chalenges that could easily derail his mandate:

  • Role of the military: In August 2012, Morsi retired senior generals and reduced the formal power of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, an interim ruling body. But the army remains Egypt’s single most powerful institution, with extensive economic interests.

  • Islamist-secular divide: Morsi speaks of “Islam with a moderate reference” but his campaign has pandered heavily toward the ultra-conservative voters. He is widely mistrusted by secular Egyptians and the Christian minority. A controversial constitutional draft with a strong Islamist imprint sparked a deep political crisis in late 2012, as Morsi appeared to have abandoned consensus-building in favor of using his Islamist electoral majority to push through divisive political decisions.

  • Economy: Morsi's support for open market economy and small-to-medium enterprises is tempered with a strong focus on social justice, and it's difficult to see how this vague policy mix will play out in practice. Foreign donors and the business elite want Morsi to liberalize the economy and reduce government subsidies on fuel and basic foodstuffs. This would be hugely unpopular with ordinary Egyptians who want the state to improve their living standards, leaving Morsi caught between the hammer and the anvil.

  • Foreign policy: Morsi wants to bolster Egypt’s regional role by distancing himself from US policies, but without jeopardizing US military aid. A staunch supporter of Palestinian resistance, Morsi won international praise for mediating a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2012. However, any tension with Israel could quickly unravel Morsi’s relationship with Washington, and alarm the Egyptian military.
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